Abolishing ICE: A New Litmus Test for Democrats Like Sinema, GarciaEXPAND
Gage Skidmore/flickr; New Times illustration

Abolishing ICE: A New Litmus Test for Democrats Like Sinema, Garcia

Connor Welton had one question when he showed up for a phone bank at the Democratic Party's Pima County headquarters in Tucson.

What was the centrist Democratic frontrunner for Arizona's open U.S. Senate seat going to do about Immigration and Customs Enforcement? Would she stop ICE from arresting people with no criminal history, as the agency under President Trump rounds up more undocumented immigrants who lack a criminal record?

"I do not support abolishing ICE," Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema says in Welton's cellphone video of the prickly exchange on July 5.

"That wasn't the question I asked," Welton says. Sinema cuts him off.

"I do believe that ICE does provide some important functions in our community," she says, explaining that ICE deports dangerous people. "But I do believe we should reform ICE, so that ICE is not targeting individuals who have done nothing wrong in our country," Sinema continues.

Welton asks the question again, interrupting her, but Sinema tells him that she has to move on.

"I will not call for the abolition of ICE, but I do believe I just explained my opinion," she says. "So, thanks."

A 24-year-old who lives outside Tucson, Welton was there to watch Congresswoman Kyrsten Sinema speak about her quest to become an independent-minded senator. Sinema chatted. She snapped photos. And shortly after the awkward exchange about ICE, she was whisked away to the next campaign stop.

Sinema is not the only Arizona Democrat grappling with the abolish ICE movement from the party's unapologetic left flank. But not every Democrat has responded like her.

This week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate and Arizona State University Professor David Garcia threw his support behind the movement to erase ICE as a federal agency, though he has eschewed the specific phrase of abolishing ICE.

Both are running competitive races in a red state, yet they've charted wholly different strategies: Garcia has mounted a full-throated progressive campaign for the governor's office; Sinema barely qualifies as a member of the Democratic Party in the eyes of left-leaning voters like Welton.

ICE is a relatively new agency that was formed just 15 years ago during the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. And because of the Trump administration's crackdown on immigrants and the traumatic family separation policy, Democratic candidates are increasingly fielding calls to deep-six the agency.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Democrat in New York, stunned the political establishment last month by taking out a 10-term congressman in a primary. Since then, abolishing ICE, one of her planks, has taken over the mainstream debate.

But as for Sinema, Ocasio-Cortez she is not.

Sinema endlessly talks about a pragmatic approach to governing and touts her bipartisan credentials. She's right in that respect: In her Congressional voting record, Sinema has voted in line with Trump's position more than half the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.

She voted for the anti-immigrant Kate's Law last year. A priority of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the bill adds years to the prison sentences of people who repeatedly cross the border illegally. Sinema voted for the proposal "to keep convicted and dangerous felons off our streets," she said at the time. And in 2015, Sinema voted to prevent the resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees, citing "a duty to keep our country safe from terrorism."

She calls it pragmatism. Left-of-center voters call it something else.

A spokesperson for Sinema did not respond to questions about specific reforms to ICE or why Sinema continues to field criticism from left-leaning voters.

Compare Sinema to Garcia, a veteran who has adopted a menu of liberal policy positions in his race to unseat Governor Doug Ducey. Garcia is proposing free community college for Arizonans and supports universal health care through a Medicare-for-all plan. He was a constant presence at the #RedForEd protests during the teachers' strike at the Capitol in late April – Garcia has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and works at ASU's college of education – and supports raising taxes to fund schools.

So it makes sense that for Garcia, tweaking ICE is not enough.

He issued a statement on Monday that condemned the administration's family separation policy, saying that Trump's actions "demand that we rebuild our immigration system top-to-bottom and start by replacing ICE with an immigration system that reflects our American values, values I and so many before have served to protect."

Garcia's communications director Sarah Elliott suggested that a new agency, better attuned to human rights and the rights of families, could replace ICE, just as ICE replaced its predecessor, the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

"Our message is that we need to get away from the false choice of open borders versus Trump and Ducey’s cruelty," Elliott wrote in an email.

Ducey, on the other hand, spent the week leaning heavily on his experience as a border-state governor and the idea that the existing law-enforcement regime (and, by extension, him) protect Arizona.

On Tuesday, Ducey published an op-ed in USA Today in which he called ICE a "lifeline" for border communities and criticized in stark terms the push to abolish ICE. "I want to be clear – this call to abolish ICE is not only wrong – it is reckless, and puts the people of my state and others in direct threat," Ducey wrote.

The governor has also spent this week touting the operations of the Arizona Border Strike Force, an amalgam agency Ducey created to combat smuggling and drug trafficking that includes state, federal, and local officers.

Evidently, his campaign views these efforts as part of a winning strategy – Ducey's re-election slogan is "Securing Arizona's Future."

Running for statewide office in Arizona as a Democrat is difficult – certainly a contributing factor for Sinema moderating her positions over the years between her time as a more outspoken, liberal state legislator before she became a three-term congresswoman.

Garcia could tell you as much. He lost narrowly to Diane Douglas in the 2014 contest for superintendent of public instruction even though Douglas was widely viewed as a weak candidate. Nevertheless, in a midterm year when Democrats might capitalize on anti-Trump energy, the same year that a popular uprising of underpaid teachers swept Arizona, Garcia's timing for the governor's race certainly seems right.

Whether the broader voting public in Arizona is on board with his idea to abolish ICE is another question.

Local polling firm Data Orbital released a poll on Wednesday that suggests Arizona voters at the moment are not sold on getting rid of ICE. Surveying 550 likely general election voters, the firm found that 80 percent of Republicans, 70 percent of Independents, and 39 percent of Democrats do not support abolishing ICE.

In an email, Ducey campaign spokesperson Patrick Ptak said that based on these polls, "it’s no surprise (Garcia) is now trying to nuance his comments." Ptak called abolishing ICE an "extreme position."

Data Orbital President George Khalaf said that the poll is another sign of Sinema's canny sense for what will win over Arizona voters.

"Sinema knows how to not just read her base, but she knows how to have a good finger on the pulse of the state," Khalaf told New Times. "She has been the loudest Democrat to ensure that she would not favor abolishing ICE."

Khalaf's background includes a stint as a political director with the state Republican Party.

Garcia's main opponent in the Democratic primary, State Senator Steve Farley, said Monday that he favors fixing ICE as opposed to abolishing the agency. Polls show Garcia has a strong lead in the three-way Democratic primary matchup, and perhaps even a tiny edge over Ducey in the general election.

The daylight that exists between Garcia and Sinema on ICE is tied up in a perennial question for Arizona Democrats.

Do you run to the left, winning over voters like Welton – the future of a Democratic party in which abolishing ICE might become a platform plank – and lose in the general election? Or, like Sinema, do you absorb the criticism from your own party, cast highly questionable votes for Kate's Law and a halt to refugee settlement, and emerge as a victorious senator as a result?

From Khalaf's point of view, the political fighting turf could be the determining factor for whether Garcia and Sinema succeed. "It is a tale of two campaigns," Khalaf said. "I just think that Sinema’s running a campaign that’s more like Arizona and, quite frankly, I think David Garcia is running as if he’s running in a California or a New York."

Welton, like Ocasio-Cortez, identifies as a socialist. After confronting Sinema last week, he left the Pima County headquarters unsatisfied with her response – Welton noted that during their exchange, he never even specifically asked Sinema if she would abolish ICE.

Sinema is "doing everything she can do to court conservative – frankly, racist – white voters hoping that will put her over the top," Welton said in an interview. "And in the course of that, she is abandoning the actual people who are the Democratic Party base."

In spite of his discomfort with Sinema, Welton conceded that in November, he'll vote strategically and definitely won't support the Republican in the race. But questions about immigration enforcement are going to continue to trail Arizona Democrats, Welton said.

"Democrats definitely should stand up for immigrants’ rights and oppose abuses by government agencies that are targeting immigrants," Welton said. "And that’s going to be messaged in different ways in different districts, but that should be the message."

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