Sen. Bernie Sanders joined a growing number of lawmakers calling for a restructuring of immigration enforcement Tuesday.
The Vermont Independent said he supports restructuring Immigrations and Customs Enforcement and other agencies as part of a more comprehensive reform effort in a statement Tuesday.
He stopped short of calling for the agency to be fully abolished, a proposal that has gained steam among advocates and lawmakers on the left. Calls to dismantle ICE have mounted across the country in the wake of the Trump administration's family separation policy, which has left hundreds of children stranded in detention centers without their parents.
Democratic lawmakers plan to introduce a bill that would dismantle the agency. Prominent Democratic candidates, including 28-year-old New York City U.S. House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who recently trounced long time incumbent Joseph Crowley, have called for abolishing ICE.
Potential 2020 presidential hopefuls are joining the bandwagon. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., is among those who have endorsed the idea, while others, like Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said she sees a need to reexamine enforcement.
Sanders is the latest high profile politician on the left to call for scrutiny of the agencies responsible for enforcing immigration laws. Other members of Vermont's delegation have instead focused on condemning the Trump administration's approach to immigration.
Under President Donald Trump's leadership, federal authorities have adopted a much tougher stance on immigration than previous administrations, increasing deportations and implementing stricter policies for illegal entries.
A new "zero tolerance" policy for people who enter the country illegally led to the separation of thousands of migrant children from their parents at the southwest border. Trump ended the separations practice by executive order last month, but more than 2,300 children had already been separated from their parents and there is no clear plan for reunifications.
The situation at the border sparked widespread criticism and prompted rallies protesting Trump's immigration policies across the country, including in Montpelier and Burlington. In recent weeks, more politicians have endorsed a frequent rally change to "Abolish ICE."
Sanders, who previously hedged on the issue when asked during a CNN interview, pointed out in his statement Tuesday that he had voted in 2002 against the creation of ICE and its parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security. He said it was "the right vote" at the time.
"Now, in 2018, it is time to do what the American people overwhelmingly want us to do: abolish the cruel and dysfunctional immigration system that we have today and pass comprehensive immigration reform," Sanders said. "That will mean restructuring the agencies that enforce our immigration laws, including ICE."
Sanders criticized the separations policy, the lack of protections for undocumented people who arrived in the country as children, and the practice of deporting people who have lived in the U.S. for a long time.
While the ranks of politicians on the left supporting the "abolish ICE" call in some form are growing, many are not adopting the slogan.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., both told VTDigger recently that they see the issue as lying more with the current administration than with the agency itself.
"The problem you have with ICE is they're there to be law enforcement and the reason so many of them are either quitting or being so critical, they're being told to do something else," Leahy said Friday.
Calls to reform the agency have come from ICE employees. According to the Texas Observer, 19 agents asked DHS leadership to consider a restructure because they say the detention policies have hindered their ability to investigate non-immigration crimes.
Leahy argued that the Trump administration has directed the agencies to act outside of their mission. "Rounding up children, that's not what they're supposed to do," he said.
"If they're actually going after crime, if they're actually doing things, if they're actually following the law, that's fine," Leahy said. "They cannot be ordered by the White House to basically ignore their mission and the law, and that's what's happening."
Welch, asked Monday if he supported the calls to abolish ICE, responded that his focus is on the White House.
"It's more important to replace Trump," he said. "As long has we have Trump he's the one in charge of their policies."
The push to abolish the immigration enforcement agency has growing support from many advocacy groups as well, including in Vermont.
"I think what that's coming from is a recognition that these are agencies that are fundamentally abusive, that for years have been acting as if they were above the law," American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont Executive Director James Duff Lyall said Tuesday.
The country has seen more "extreme" policies under Trump, he said, but Lyall said they are but consistent with a "culture of abuse and impunity" that ACLU has followed under previous administrations as well.
"More and more people are waking up to the fact that these are badly broken agencies and that something needs to change," he said.
The movement also has support from Migrant Justice, an advocacy organization that represents immigrant farmer workers in the state.
"It's encouraging to see this language gaining more and more mainstream acceptance to the point that Democratic candidates are using it n their campaigns as well," Will Lambek, of Migrant Justice, said.
Middlebury College political science professor emeritus Eric Davis said that the push to abolish the agency is a larger reaction to Trump's immigration approach.
"The issue about ICE really involves the so-called zero tolerance policy," Davis said.
Democrats have broadly bristled at the Trump administration's tactics and decision to prioritize deportation of anybody in the country illegally.
However, he said there could be concern around immigration enforcement more broadly.
Many Vermonters of different political stripes would likely be irked by border authorities setting up a checkpoint nearly 100-miles from Canada, he said. Current law allows Border Patrol to do so. A bill sponsored by Leahy would curtail that authority to within 25 miles of the border.
"I think many Vermonters would agree with the proposal that the Border Patrol should be operating at the border rather than conducting checkpoints 100 miles from the border," Davis said.