Abolish ICE versus End the IRS: Still No Real Equivalance

by Neil H. Buchanan

The new tut-tutting move on the op-ed pages is to say that Democrats are moving too far to the left, which is sometimes made as a definitive claim and other times as part of a "Democrats have an identity crisis" rerun of old columns.  In any case, with the continued popularity of Senator Bernie Sanders among many Democrats, combined with the emergence of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez as a new face on the left, Republicans and many pundits are now saying that the Democrats are becoming full-on socialists.

That is nonsense, of course, for reasons that I will explore in a pair of columns next week.  Today, however, I want to focus on what is perhaps the most plausible -- or, more accurately, least implausible -- example of this supposed lefty extremism among the Democratic base: the proposal to "Abolish ICE."  This is a relatively new proposal embraced by many progressives that would eliminate the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

The reason that I call this accusation the least implausible among the talking points against progressive Democrats is that the idea of abolishing an agency that enforces immigration law inevitably plays into the false claims that Democrats want "open borders."  And when proponents of abolishing ICE explain that they do, in fact, still plan to enforce immigration laws, their defense can look an awful lot like a pointless and downright silly exercise in relabeling.  "Don't like ICE?” they might seem to be saying, “No problem.  We'll replace it with a new agency, which we'll call Not-ICE."

My snarky turn of phrase in that last sentence, in fact, mirrors an attack that I have made against Republicans who have talked about "ending the IRS."  That proposal actually gained steam on the right a few years ago, and I commented back then that the Republicans would end up creating an agency called Not-the-IRS and then declare victory.

The ridiculousness of the relabeling exercise was so obvious that even Senator Marco Rubio attacked his colleague Ted Cruz during the 2016 presidential primaries, pointing out to listeners at a joint press conference (sometimes wrongly called a "debate") that Cruz had proposed to rewrite the entire U.S. tax code, and "[s]omeone's going to be collecting [your proposed] tax."

Is Abolish ICE just a lefty equivalent of End the IRS?  Actually, no, even though the superficial similarity is there.  But because of that superficial similarity, it is unfortunate (though understandable) that progressives have adopted this rallying cry.  In a superficial media culture, this is an unforced error.

In any case, having said that this comes closer than usual to looking like true equivalence between Republicans and Democrats, I will spend the rest of this column explaining why it is, in fact, very much another example of false equivalence.  Abolish ICE and End the IRS, in the end, could not be more different.

We can start with a fundamental point that could in theory be helpful to either liberals or conservatives, which is that sometimes a bureaucracy becomes so deeply dysfunctional that it might make sense simply to start over.  One could imagine concluding that, say, an agency has become so deeply infused with racism or other biases that the point truly is not to relabel the agency but to tear it down and build something better from the ground up.  Dismantling and replacing that agency would be a moral imperative, and doing so would be a matter of substance and not form.

This argument is, in fact, offered by conservative critics of the IRS as well as liberal critics of ICE.  But the fact that both sides say it does not mean that we have to take both sides' assertions as equally valid.  In reality, the evidence of the IRS's misconduct is both anecdotal and minimal, whereas misconduct by ICE is endemic and abusive.

As a threshold matter, the legal regimes that these two police forces (which is what they are, the "tax cops" and the "immigration cops") exist to enforce are quite different.  The Congresses that have over the decades created the tax and immigration codes have been extremely solicitous to taxpayers but gratuitously nasty to immigrants.

Can people go to jail for violating these two codes?  Yes, they can.  But Congress (with the help of the courts and the respective executive departments) has set up the systems so that jail is the rare exception for tax violations but a constant and real threat for immigration violations.

In tax cases, the IRS is required by law to give people multiple chances to fix tax errors, with all but the most insistent violators being hit with at worst some financial penalties.  (Jail is for the most egregious or unrepentant offenders only.)  In immigration cases, especially under the current administration, violators are lucky if they are given a court date and ordered to appear rather than being imprisoned while awaiting adjudication.

As a matter of politics, this is all too predictable.  U.S. citizens pay taxes, and they would rebel at the polls if Congress came down hard on tax evasion.  But it is almost always safe politics to play to nativist sentiment by promising to lock up border violators.

How does the difference in statutory harshness play out at the enforcement level?  The Republican canon involves Grimm-like fairy tales of IRS abuse that are simply not backed up by reality.  Yes, any police force is going to have an imperfect record, but the IRS's record is astonishingly clean.

After Republicans retook the House majority with Newt Gingrich's Contract on America in the mid-1990's, they immediately held show trials in Congressional committee hearings that were designed to demonstrate that the IRS was a rogue agency.  Yet even with an open call for anyone to say anything bad about the IRS in front of approving Republicans, in the end the provable rogue-like violations were countable on one thumb-less hand.

That does not, of course, mean that everyone has a good experience with the IRS.  But that is because people do not like to pay taxes, and they are unhappy when it turns out that they have to pay the full amount due rather than being allowed to inflate their deductions or hide income.  Conservatives could try to claim that it is their anti-IRS vigilance that has kept the agency in line -- and even that claim would be false -- but they cannot bring themselves to make that argument because it would concede that the IRS is not guilty of being a rogue agency.

Meanwhile, the documented abuses by ICE are mounting by the day.  Like all government agencies, ICE is mostly staffed with people who are committed to doing their jobs well and who act professionally.  But the inevitable self-selection of some employees who hold anti-immigrant views, combined with a green light from the Trump Administration, has created a living hell for many immigrants and would-be immigrants to the U.S. (and even some citizens who "look foreign" to nativists).

Of course, abolishing ICE would not end the existing harsh laws or the Trump-inflamed hatred of immigrants.  This, however, brings us to the most important difference between Republicans who attack the IRS and Democrats (and others) who want to fix the immigration enforcement system: Democrats actually have a workable solution.

Republicans who attack the IRS have generally not bothered to say what they would do to respond to Rubio's challenge, i.e., telling us who would collect the taxes that (whatever the tax code looks like after Republicans have done their worst) would have to be collected.  The few who have discussed the matter have proposed either pushing it onto the states or to farm tax collection out to other agencies of the federal government.

The state-level tax collection idea (having states collect both state and federal taxes and then forward the federal revenues to the U.S. Treasury) is absurd on a number of levels, the most immediate of which is that state tax collection agencies currently rely heavily on the IRS for data and enforcement services.  Devolving these responsibilities downward would be an enormous mandate (almost certainly an unfunded one) that the federal government would impose on the states.

Keeping tax collection at the federal level but splitting it up among existing agencies might be defensible but for two problems.  First, as I noted above, this would only make sense if the existing agency was irredeemably dysfunctional.  In fact, however, the source of any existing problems at the IRS is Republicans' continued bleeding of the agency's budget (while increasing its responsibilities).  If one thinks that the IRS needs to be improved, as I do in various ways, the solutions are surprisingly simple: restore an adequate budget and stop engaging in morale-destroying political attacks on the agency.

Second, splitting up IRS functions across agencies would be a hugely expensive exercise and would almost certainly lead to data breaches that would compromise taxpayer privacy.  The good thing about having one agency collecting and archiving all of that information is that it does not have to share the information across agencies.  (This would be an even worse problem in the let-the-states-collect-all-taxes proposal described above.)

In the end, ending the IRS would at best be an unneeded exercise that either results in the same agency with a new name or a fractured collection system that would work less well and would be a privacy nightmare.

Would that also be true of the effort to abolish ICE?  Because Democrats actually believe in backing up their proposals with real legislation, Wisconsin congressman Marc Pocan has now put forward a proposed statute to abolish ICE and replace it with an immigration enforcement system that would not be prone to the cruelties and excesses that we currently see.

Pocan's proposal, summarized in a recent Washington Post article, is a response to a truly broken system.  According to The Post, Pocan "said the legislation would allow immigration laws to be enforced but put an end to a 15-year-old agency that had diverged from its original mission.  'The ICE brand has been so damaged by the president that it can no longer accomplish its original mission,' Pocan said. “Even ICE agents recognize that ICE doesn’t do what it was intended to.'"

The bill would sunset ICE after one year and create a bipartisan group to "identify all essential functions of ICE that uphold the Constitution, ... identify the appropriate federal agencies that shall be tasked with executing activities such as combating financial crimes, cybercrimes, trade fraud, human trafficking and drug smuggling[, and] approve the agency’s suitability for that function based on such agency’s track record of transparency."

I am not saying that this is a flawless plan, and if I were in Congress, I would work on filling in some key details, but it at least makes clear that immigration is not an area of the law that requires or benefits from centralized one-agency enforcement.  In addition, I did not even realize that ICE was such a new agency, and it is clear that we did not have open borders before 2003.  (Interestingly, Pocan also admits, by referring to the "ICE brand," that this is in part a matter of form, which is especially important when the target population has learned to fear people wearing ICE jackets.)

The more important point is that Pocan's proposal grapples directly with how to create an enforcement system through which the government can deal with immigration in a consistent and humane fashion.  Although Pocan deliberately did not include proposals to overhaul the underlying immigration laws, focusing instead purely on ending the toxic mess at ICE, such reforms would certainly be part of any future in which Democrats could enact legislation.

In the end, then, it is all too easy to disparage Abolish ICE as an empty exercise in relabeling.  As I noted above, I personally wish that the critics of ICE had not chosen to brand their proposal with the Abolish ICE slogan, but I do so only because it is so easy for Republicans and faux-centrist pundits to mischaracterize what the progressives actually are trying to accomplish.

The U.S. immigration enforcement system has been exposed as a humanitarian nightmare.  We can do better, and there is a serious proposal to do so.