Christie: Let’s take a breath, think about this ‘Abolish ICE!’ thing

About 15,000 New Yorkers march in support of immigrant families and to condemn the Trump administration’s “zero-tolerance” policies on June 30. (Erik McGregor / Sipa USA/TNS)

In an election year, one side is always looking for that pivotal issue that will pump up passion among voters and give their side an advantage over the other.

For the left that has been the immigration issue. President Donald J. Trump all but handed his haters the equivalent of a gimme when he instituted a “zero-tolerance policy” for those crossing illegally into the U.S. A policy that resulted in children — some less than a year old — being dispassionately separated from their parents at our southern border.

Pictures and audio captured the immigration mess that bordered on an atrocity, and help Trump’s detractors paint him and his administration as heartless. It looked like a winning strategy at the polls, as the overwhelming majority of Americans detested the child separations.

The president backtracked and reversed, and is still stumbling over the issue.

But the left — and some Democrats — maybe a little drunk on their success,  have possibly taken things too far.

“Abolish ICE” makes for a good rallying cry. But demanding the abolition of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency also provides Trump — and the right  — with a useful weapon for bludgeoning Dems politically. And a significant portion of the American public will agree.

LOS ANGELES, CA – Sen. Kamala Harris speaks at the Families Belong Together – Freedom For Immigrants March at Los Angeles City Hall. (Photo by Sarah Morris/Getty Images)

Democratic Sens. Sen Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, and Kamala Harris, of California, have all pounded the issue at Senate hearings and public rallies. But no one was taking it too seriously.

Then, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — stunned the New York Democratic establishment, and the nation, with her primary victory last month over 10-term U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley. Part of her platform: Abolish ICE!

And now, the slogan, has caught on with the left and threatens to steamroll the Democratic agenda — whatever that is at the moment.

Yes, “Abolish ICE!” is usually followed with, “Replace it with something else,” but nobody’s listening to that part.

All the masses hear — both on the left and the right — is “Abolish ICE!” Well, on the right, they also hear, “We want open borders!”

And that’s been the left’s election-year give back to Trump. He has said as much.

President Donald Trump has gone the attack against Democratic lawmakers who have called for abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, seeking to seize political advantage on an issue that has put him on the defensive for weeks and offer a winning message for Republicans facing a forbidding midterm election. (Al Drago / The New York Times)

What’s frustrating is that beyond being a nice slogan, abolishing ICE is no more a serious policy proposal than claiming Mexico’s “gonna pay for the wall.”

At the risk of stating the obvious, elections have consequences. Those include changes in policy, not typically the creation or elimination of whole agencies. If Americans don’t like ICE’s current enforcement polices, the public should demand a change in those policies, or a change in the leaders who promulgate those policies. During the Vietnam War, millions of Americans demanded an end to the war; no one seriously demanded that we abolish the entire U.S. Defense Department. That would be stupid as it would have completely compromised our national security.

Getting rid of ICE is not on that level, but it would definitely compromise public safety. ICE is a law-enforcement agency. It consists of essentially two components: enforcement and removal operations (ERO), and homeland security investigations (HSI), which is dedicated to the investigation of cross-border crimes such as smuggling dangerous drugs and contraband, the theft of intellectual property, child pornography and human trafficking.

Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson (AP Photo / Andrew Harnik)

In a recent op-ed for The Washington Post, former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson:

“During the last three years of the Obama administration, when I headed the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS), President Barack Obama gave me the policy direction to focus ICE’s deportation resources on recent border crossers and those undocumented immigrants convicted of serious crimes. We did that. In those years, the number of deportations from the interior United States went down, but the percentage of those deported who were serious criminals went up. We stripped away the barriers that existed between ICE and so-called sanctuary cities. By the time I left office, 21 of the 25 largest jurisdictions that had refused to comply with ICE detainers – written requests to delay the release of people arrested by local law enforcement – had signaled a willingness to work with ICE again in pursuit of the most dangerous undocumented criminals.

RELATED: ‘Abolish ICE’: What is Immigration and Customs Enforcement and what does it do?

As we at Homeland Security asked ICE to focus more on criminals, we heard pleas from many in the enforcement and removal operations workforce whose pay had been capped at an arbitrary ceiling; we put them on the same pay scale with their law-enforcement peers. All this was a good step in the direction of public safety, and it was good for morale. In 2016, my last year in office, the morale within ICE’s 20,000-person workforce increased 7 percent, according to the annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey.

Meanwhile, I constantly reminded ICE leadership that controversial, high-profile cases of fathers torn from their families and students pulled from their schools for deportation would turn ICE into a pariah in the very communities where its agents must work, and would threaten to undermine ICE’s larger public-safety mission. I regret to watch that happening now, as ICE is vilified across the country and sanctuary cities are emboldened to proclaim themselves as such. My thoughts are with the hardworking men and women of the agency caught in the middle of this political firestorm.”

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All that these calls to abolish ICE have done so far is further divide the public — and its which-ever-way-the-wind-blows politicians — and hinder already slim chances at immigration reform. No wonder running against Washington remains such a popular campaign tactic.

Immigration reform is something most Americans believe that we need. How to get there has been the sticking point for more than 30 years.

A zero-tolerance policy that removes toddlers from their parents at the border is not the answer. But neither is outright abolishing ICE.