Though I identify as a neoliberal, for all intents and purposes, my views of the role of government and how government should behave are conservative.
I believe in a small state, which intervenes in the economy when there are clear market failures. Naturally, that means government should be predictable and exercise discretion very cautiously.
That’s precisely why I believe Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be reformed. Or to jump on the popular movement and hashtag on the left, #AbolishICE. And I believe thoughtful, self-identified conservatives should as well.
A law enforcement arm of the Department of Homeland Security, ICE was created as part of the homeland security bureaucracy in the years after the 9/11 attacks. Today, the agency costs taxpayers close to $7.4 billion in 2018 and is probably known best for separating over 2,000 children from their families — possibly causing the death of at least one child — and wrongfully targeting over 1,000 American citizens for investigation.
In light of this, some have called for an end to the agency, full stop. This has even become part of the platform that helped 28-year-old progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez unseat longtime congressman Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th Congressional District.
Of course, it’s easy for conservatives to brush off concerns about ICE as typical liberal hysteria. After all, bleeding hearts on the left are nothing new. But this would be a mistake. In fact, it’s precisely conservative values that should guide opposition to ICE as it currently operates.
For starters, an agency with ICE’s discretion isn’t conducive to the slow-to-change, deliberative — and by extension, predictable — government that conservatives believe in. Consider that the agency has apparently been engaging in warrantless raids to seek out undocumented immigrants. Or that ICE has even sought out individuals who appear in court — either as defendants or witnesses — as part of its investigations.
The discretion given to ICE isn’t a far cry from the discretion — routinely abused by local police departments — used to seize property suspected of being connected to a crime without having to charge the property owner with a crime. These laws, called civil asset forfeiture, have been criticized by libertarian-leaning conservatives, including George Mason University law professor Ilya Somin, who noted seizing property “without ever having to prove that you committed a crime is deeply unjust.”
If seizing property without evidence of wrongdoing is unjust, detaining Americans without evidence of wrongdoing is even more unjust.
This is likely why some Republicans opposed the creation of DHS to begin with — then-Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) among them. These critiques recognize excessive discretion requires the goodwill of the executive branch of the government to avoid abuses of power. The same logic should apply to ICE.
Yet it’s not only conservative views of government that should make those on the right skeptical of ICE. Conservatives must realize that, at a deeper level, ICE’s antics are telling the world the U.S. is no longer a “shining city on a hill.” Instead of being a safe haven welcoming those seeking a meritocracy, it now subjects the tired and huddled masses to arbitrary questioning and investigation even after they’ve become citizens.
My own story may be instructive here. As a first-generation immigrant — my family came to America as part of the big Russian-Jewish wave in the early ‘90s. I was raised with a more idealized view of the United States than most Americans may have been. I believe education and hard work pay dividends. This is a view many other immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees likely share. It’s precisely immigrants like my family and others who hold this view — those who believe in the American dream — who conservatives should want to come here. But a few things throw a wrench into that: the threat of deportation after obtaining citizenship, for instance, or the threat of being extradited to a faux democracy on the basis of questionable evidence submitted to INTERPOL.
All that being said, when we think about ending or reforming ICE, it’s important to understand almost no one is advocating a borderless country. The U.S. will still enforce immigration laws. But conservatives should agree immigration laws must be enforced the way any sensible law is enforced — with a presumption of innocence; a reasonable, but limited, amount of discretion; and accountability to taxpayers.
Today’s ICE meets none of these standards. Conservatives should be on the front lines advocating for the reform or replacement of this failing agency.
Yevgeniy Feyman is a senior research assistant at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, an adjunct fellow in health policy at the Manhattan Institute and an incoming Ph.D. student at the Boston University School of Public Health.