-Ashley Smith, PJC Member

Trump is engaged in an all-out war on immigrants and refugees. He’s unleashed Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) along the US borders and throughout the country: building the apartheid wall, barring people from entering the country, raiding workplaces, detaining untold numbers in the concentration camps and deporting countless more to dangerous and impoverished conditions, largely created by the US, in their home countries.

Trump’s violations of the basic human rights of immigrants and refugees pile up ever higher by the day. He has overruled previous policies in order to allow the indefinite detention of families and children, put a halt to vaccinations in the camps, start deportation procedures against those undergoing life-saving medical procedures, bar almost all refugees from entering the country, expel an Iraqi US citizen to Iraq where he died of diabetic shock, try to stop a Palestinian student from attending Harvard because of his friends’ social media posts, and prevent eight Chinese foreign students from attending Arizona State University.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has boldly challenged Trump’s reign of terror. She has opposed funding of the camps, demanded their closure, and called for the abolition of ICE and CBP. Senator Leahy should be following her lead, but he’s done the exact opposite.

Leahy sponsored the bill to fund the camps. He defends ICE and CBP in general, and specifically ICE’s data facility in Williston, Vermont—the Law Enforcement Support Center (LESC). Indeed, he openly boasts about his role in bringing it to the state.

A recent article in The Burlington Free Press documents how the senator worked overtime to expand the facility from its earlier more modest incarnations into its current form, which the reporters dub ICE’s national “nerve center.” As the reporters note, “callers from across the country can contact the center to report suspected undocumented immigrants in the United States.”

Open twenty-four hours a day seven days a week and staffed by over four hundred people, LESC last year managed 280,000 records on immigrants, issued 4,900 calls to detain people, fielded 112,000 calls from police across the country, and received 1.45 million requests from police to provide information on people’s identity and immigration status.

How in the world does Leahy justify the continued existence of this quasi police state institution? First and foremost, he argues that it brings “good jobs” and a “welcome boost” to Vermont’s economy.

But, let’s be honest, ICE is neither good nor welcome. Its purpose is to surveil, terrorize, detain, and deport human beings that it dehumanizes as “illegal.” The problem is of course not the individual workers at the facility, but the institution they work for.

Instead of defending this indefensible institution, Leahy should put forward a plan to shut it down and convert all its jobs in Williston into socially useful ones like teaching, nursing, and others proposed in the Green New Deal. These, unlike employment at ICE, would be genuinely good jobs that would advance social progress to redress problems in our society.

Leahy’s second justification for supporting ICE and its Williston facility is that these institutions have been “perverted” by the Trump administration. Well of course Trump has used ICE for his nefarious purposes, but he was able to do so precisely because ICE was set up to do what it is currently doing.

Remember, Obama used ICE and CBP between 2009 and 2015 to detain and deport over 2.5 million people—more than any president in US history—winning the Democrat the ignoble moniker “deporter in chief.”

Finally, Leahy argues that ICE should return to its supposedly good role of arresting, detaining, and deporting undocumented workers with criminal records. This argument, used to justify ICE’s checkpoints and arrests of 43 undocumented immigrants in the last month in Vermont, is just as bankrupt as the previous two.

When breaking the law leads to deportation, immigrants are treated as second class people, held to different standards than everyone else. What’s more, unleashing ICE on “bad immigrants” will inevitably also harm “good immigrants,” subjecting them to mistrust, racial profiling, false arrests, and unrelenting fear of being caught up in the dragnet.

And, as we in Vermont know, ICE and the police will use even minor traffic infractions as justification for detention and deportation especially of those who stand up for their human rights. Many Migrant Justice activists among our state’s farm workers have been arrested and deported on these flimsy grounds.

Leahy should immediately reverse his mistaken stand and follow the lead of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, and so should the rest of our congressional delegation. They too have either recapitulated Leahy’s arguments or waffled on the question. Sometimes they simply ducked the issue, as when Bernie Sanders’ staffer claimed that the senator couldn’t respond to Burlington Free Press reporters’ questions about his position on Williston’s ICE facility because his schedule was too busy.

Now is not the time for equivocation, evasion, or justifying unjust institutions, but for political and moral clarity and action. We should follow the lead of Migrant Justice and organize campaigns in each town and city throughout the state to end the collaboration between the police and ICE as Winooski has done.

That means we must call for the closure and conversion of the ICE facility in Williston, as it was set up to facilitate such collaboration. And we cannot wait for the November election in 2020 to act; everyone should join activists across the country and here in Vermont to protest ICE on October 12th through 14th behind the slogan that Jewish and immigrant rights activists have raised—”Never Again Means Abolish ICE.”