WASHINGTON (Circa) — A growing number of Americans view immigration as the most important issue facing the country, according to recent polls. At the same time, a number of Democratic candidates and 2020 presidential hopefuls are seizing on popular opposition to President Donald Trump's agenda to join activists' calls to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
While some progressives have adopted the position to fight back against Trump's "zero-tolerance" immigration enforcement policies, it's not clear who will be more mobilized by calls to "abolish ICE," Democrats or Republicans.
Over the weekend, President Trump embraced his political opponents' calls to dismantle ICE, arguing it will play into the hands of Republicans in the midterms.
"I hope they keep thinking about it, because they're going to be beaten so badly," Trump said in an interview with Fox News' Maria Bartiromo.
"I love that issue if they're actually going to do that," he continued, claiming the country will be "crime-ridden" if Democrats successfully eliminate immigration enforcement.
"That's going to be their platform: open borders which equals crime. I think they'll never win another election," Trump concluded. "So I'm actually quite happy about that."
For Republicans running on a pro-Trump platform, the president's hardline policies on border security and stopping illegal immigration continue to garner strong support among his conservative base. Multiple polls show the overwhelming majority of Republicans (over 70 percent) favor the border wall and ending sanctuary city policies. A majority of Republicans (55 percent) recently said they supported the controversial policy of separating families who cross the border illegally.
Moreover, according to a Democratic congressman, the president's consistent messaging about his political opponents as "weak on immigration" or in favor of "open borders" seems to be working.
Over the weekend, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., tweeted about a confrontation with a constituent who accused him of supporting "open borders."
"I told her that's not true and I've never said that. She said '@FoxNews said you do.' Guys, this is what we are up against," Swalwell wrote.
According to Kirby Goidel, the director of the Public Policy Research Institute at Texas A&M University, "If the Democratic position on immigration is successfully caricatured as 'Abolish ICE,' it could fit into more general perceptions that Democrats are anti-law enforcement and weak on crime."
Democrats could possibly position themselves to "win the issue" of immigration by portraying themselves as "more humane and fair-minded," but they are still waging an uphill battle against a party that has been much better at staying on message, he noted.
For staunch Democrats, however, the "abolish ICE" campaign message will likely play well for those who are angry and fearful of President Trump's policies.
The images of ICE agents separating families at the border may be what Democrats need to energize voters to go to the polls in November, suggested John Geer, a political scientist and Dean of Vanderbilt University's College of Arts and Science. On the other hand, that approach may not work to mobilize the centrists and moderates who are historically the critical voters a party needs to take majority control of the House or Senate.
"This is where we're flying blind," Geer said. "Turnout is going to drive the campaign, and the question is whose base is going to turn out?"
Harvard law professor and civil libertarian Alan Dershowitz warned that Democrats' calls to abolish ICE amount to a "self-inflicted wound" on their political prospects in 2018 and 2020.
In a Monday interview with Sinclair's Michelle Macaluso, Dershowitz said by calling for the elimination of ICE, Democrats are moving "way to the left of where the American people are."
"The Democrats lost this past election because they lost the center," he argued. "What they're doing now is going to lose even more people in that category."
At least one candidate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, was rewarded in a safe, blue district for making "#AbolishICE" a central part of her successful primary campaign against Democratic establishment incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley.
Since Ocasio-Cortez's victory last week, a handful of Democrats rumored to be running for president in 2020 are testing the proposition of abolishing or reorganizing ICE with appeals to activists who are increasingly mobilized against President Trump's immigration policies.
At a Saturday immigration rally in Boston, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, "We need to rebuild our immigration system from top to bottom starting by replacing ICE with something that reflects our morality and that works."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, issued a statement on Facebook Friday stating, "We need to abolish ICE." Earlier in the week she criticized the agency as a "deportation force" and argued it should be restructured to "separate the criminal justice from the immigration issues."
Sen. Kamala Harris of California, said last week that the immigration enforcement agency should be re-examined, suggesting, "We need to probably think about starting from scratch."
Other Democratic incumbents have joined the movement to abolish ICE. Rep. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin introduced legislation last week to "abolish ICE and crack down on the agency’s blanket directive to target and round up individuals and families." The bill would dismantle ICE and transfer its functions to other agencies.
Democratic congressmen Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Jim McGovern of Massachusetts and Pramila Jayapal of Washington have also endorsed the call to end ICE.
Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon told Portland's KATU News that ICE, as an agency, "needs to be totally and completely overhauled." He stopped short of endorsing calls to disband it, adding, "I'm not ruling anything out."
As a practical matter, a number of lawmakers have dismissed the idea of dismantling the 20,000-person force of law enforcement agents, investigators and customs inspectors.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., a vocal Trump critic, said Sunday that "abolishing ICE will accomplish nothing unless we change the Trump policies."
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill, echoed the sentiments that the problem is with policies rather than the agency or agents themselves. "You abolish ICE now, you still have the same president with the same failed policies," she told CNN.
Public polling also suggests that "abolish ICE" may be more of a rallying cry than a policy supported by the American people. A Harvard-Harris poll conducted last week found an overwhelming 69 percent of respondents said they do not want Immigration and Customs Enforcement "disbanded."
The poll also found relatively strong approval (46 percent) of the way President Trump is handling immigration, with 54 percent disapproving.
Geer warned against reading too deeply into the polls and their potential impact on an election that is still four months away. The public's focus could shift away from immigration concerns toward the economy or national security.
Similarly, since President Trump’s victory, conventional wisdom regarding mobilizing voters and winning elections has been challenged and may no longer apply.
"The crystal balls we've had for predicting politics have never been super powerful to begin with. They're even less powerful now,” Geer noted. “And maybe that's just the new normal."