Prosecute ICE Agents? Immigrant Advocates Say Yes.

Zephyr Teachout's pledge to bring charges against ICE agents and officials who commit crimes against immigrants is considered a necessary step in reining in the "rogue agency," advocates say.

[Zephyr Teachout stands in front of Trump Tower.]
A law professor at Fordham University, Zephyr Teachout promises to protect immigrant rights and lead the charge to abolish ICE if elected as New York attorney general. Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Zephyr Teachout, a Democratic candidate for attorney general in New York, wants to abolish U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and prosecute agents for their criminal actions against immigrants.

It’s a hardline stance many civil rights activists applaud.

“As a community organization that sees every day the atrocities that ICE is perpetrating against immigrants, we think it’s absolutely critical that every Attorney General candidate commits to reining in this rogue agency, which we believe should be abolished,” said Javier H. Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, an immigrants rights group.

Calls to dismantle ICE must go beyond prosecuting ICE agents or replacing it with another agency, Liz Martinez, director of advocacy and communications at Freedom for Immigrants, said in a statement.

“At the root of ICE’s vast powers, lack of transparency and unaccountability is the U.S.’s massive immigration detention system that skyrocketed overnight under the Clinton administration and continued to grow unchecked under both Republican and Democratic presidents,” she said. “Abolishing ICE means abolishing the immigration detention system.”

A law professor at Fordham University, Teachout promises to protect immigrant rights and lead the charge to abolish ICE.

“ICE was born in xenophobia in the time after 9/11, and it has grown up to become a tool of fear and illegality,” she said early this month in a video interview on NowThis News. “I think it’s critical that law enforcement speak out and say this is a tool of cruelty, unconstitutional behavior, illegality.”

In a June Guardian op-ed, Teachout criticized President Trump’s family separation policy and said he uses ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) as “tools of unconstitutional illegal behavior.”

“We, as lawyers, must point out that unrestrained power is almost always abusive. Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is not an accident that ICE and CBP have become tools of illegality: it is part of the design. Therefore, we must abolish ICE,” she wrote.

Teachout’s announcement comes after lawmaker calls to abolish ICE and has been echoed by prominent Democratic candidates like Deb Haaland in New Mexico, and Cynthia Nixon and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York.

But some activists say prosecuting ICE agents is not enough under an administration that continues to attack and criminalize immigrants, protesters, women, and people of color.

Teachout’s critique of ICE is true of most other law enforcement agencies in this country, Maurice BP-Weeks, co-executive director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy (ACRE), told Rewire.News.

“Calls to abolish ICE should include calls to abolish our entire current policing system, the totality of which is racist and corrupt,” he said. “Residents of New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and many other communities around the country experience their local police force being used as a tool for cruelty, unconstitutionality, illegality and pain every day. The notion of consistent abuse and policing go hand in hand.”

A national organization focused on ending isolation and abuse in the immigration detention system, Freedom for Immigrants advocated in California for a moratorium on immigration detention expansion and construction, and pushed for a budget amendment to allow the California attorney general to monitor immigration detention facilities for human rights and due process violations.

“State governments can and should be actively working on measures that hold ICE accountable for abuses and that regulate and work toward ending immigrant jails and prisons. That said, there has to be a concerted effort at the national level to dismantle this inhumane system since ICE is a federal agency,” Martinez said.

While she cannot prosecute an entire agency, Teachout could prosecute agents for criminal wrongdoing, said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg of the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia. But her stance on ICE puts government “in a bind.”

A case against an ICE agent would force the government to either take the agent’s side or argue that unlawful actions such as excessive force, racial profiling, or illegal home raids are within the scope of an ICE agent’s duties.

“I think it’s a great policy and commitment of principle against an agency that is completely out of control and really without any oversight,” said David Brotherton, a professor of sociology and criminologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.

A second-generation immigrant, Brotherton is researching the social processes of deportation from the United States. He has been an expert witness on deportation cases for more than a decade, and has called ICE the largest police force in the United States.

Originally “rammed through” after the 9/11 attacks, ICE has gone beyond its original mission and has become “a mechanism for mass deportation,” Brotherton said.

It remains to be seen what Teachout could do as attorney general to rein in the federal agency, make it more compliant with the law, or shut it down in the nation’s interest. But if she can do that in New York, other progressive states could follow her lead, he said, and signal to Congress that ICE’s existence is a problem.

Making this a campaign issue has already opened discussion on ICE’s actions and existence, and has drawn the ire of groups like the National Rifle Association. Teachout has been criticized on Fox News and called a “liberal carpetbagger” by U.S. Rep. John Faso, the Republican who defeated Teachout in the 2016 race for that congressional seat .

Teachout unsuccessfully challenged Gov. Andrew Cuomo in the 2014 gubernatorial primary but managed to claim 34 percent of the vote. She announced her candidacy for attorney general after Eric Schneiderman resigned in May after women accused him of assault.

Public advocate Letitia James, one of four challengers for the Democratic nomination for New York attorney general, has long been an advocate for immigrant rights, which is a part of her platform. She has promised to keep ICE out of courthouses and has called for the agency to stop detaining people.

The other attorney general candidates, U.S. Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney and Leecia Eve, a former staffer to Senators Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton, have not made campaign statements about abolishing ICE but have criticized the agency. Maloney recently blamed the Trump administration for turning the agency into “a deportation force.” Eve said she would fight the president’s immigration policies.

New York’s primary elections are scheduled for September 13.