Abolitionist Reforms and the Immigrants' Rights Movement


This Article discusses the criteria for abolitionist reforms and assesses whether current immigrants’ rights demands move us towards a more transformative agenda, one that questions the legitimacy of the state.  The Article argues that calls to invest in immigrant communities and to release immigrants from detention can be radical reforms that move us closer to abolition if they are paired with demands to end mass incarceration and to defund the police.


During the particular moment of global disruption brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, organizers and advocates are pushing the envelope on making bigger and more radical demands.  Local and state governments quickly adopted ideas that were previously considered “radical” or “unrealistic”—such as eviction moratoriums and rent freezes,[1] with some temporarily extended.[2]  Calls to release people from mass incarceration—exemplified by the #FreeThemAll hashtag—were made immediately.  This led to several governors decreasing the numbers of people in state prisons[3] and multiple localities decreasing their jail populations,[4] although the reductions were not nearly close to what was needed.  The continued police murders of Black people and the subsequent Black Lives Matter uprising in June and beyond have also defined the key moment that we are in, one where the exposure of economic inequality driven by racial capitalism and white supremacy has been felt and seen with acute sharpness and intensity.

In the immigrants’ rights context, the main immigrant-specific demands that have been made of the state these past few months are to include undocumented immigrants in COVID-19 relief efforts and to release people from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention centers.  In order to actually advance systemic changes and build power to win, the types of demands and campaigns that immigrants’ rights groups should put forward at this moment of rupture must be “abolitionist” reforms. Abolitionist reforms move us toward ending all forms of structural oppression and address the root of these oppressions.

This Article defines and discusses the criteria for abolitionist reforms and assesses whether the recent demands by immigrants’ rights advocates take us in the direction of abolition and transformative change.  This Article concludes that calls to invest in immigrant communities and to release immigrants from detention can be radical reforms that move us closer to abolition if they are paired with demands to end mass incarceration and to defund the police.

I.  Abolitionist Reforms

First, how do we define “abolitionist” reforms?  Several different terms have been applied to this concept, including transformative reforms, nonreformist reforms, and revolutionary reforms.  The underlying idea is the same—improvements that win real, material changes and get us closer to systemic change rather than incrementally improving and thereby reifying existing structures.  In Rebuilding the Left, Chilean sociologist and Marxist intellectual Marta Harnecker writes:

It seems to me that the best definition is one which pins the label reformist on those who wish to improve the existing order through reform, and that of revolutionary on those who, although pushing for reform, fight at the same time to modify that order profoundly, to bring about a change that cannot happen without a break with the previously existing order.[5]

These are the criteria that I propose using to assess whether a reform is an “abolitionist” rather than purely reformist reform:

(1) Reforms that have a broader transformative vision and prefigure a different world.  Often, whether because of political realities or the failure to have a larger political imagination, advocates advance limited fixes that only nominally move the needle.  For example, efforts to provide oversight and accountability of ICE have not led to fewer people being arrested or detained by ICE.  Rather, they legitimize the idea that ICE as an institution should continue to exist, just with fewer instances of overt abuses.  A reform that has a broader vision is the call to defund ICE altogether.  This demand calls to question whether ICE serves any valid purpose and whether raids, detention, and deportation need to exist at all.  While addressing community members’ everyday material needs through practical changes is important, it should be accompanied by a larger vision of the world that we want to see, one that is rooted in liberation, justice, participatory democracy, solidarity, imagination, hope, and joy.  If we do not present this vision in our demands, then we will not be able to strive towards it.

(2) Reforms that cut across movements and issue areas or have the potential to build across various movements.  The immigrants’ rights movement by itself does not have the power to bring about transformative change, nor should that type of change affect only one population.  Rather, we must put forward intersectional demands that cut across movements.  Bills and campaigns to decriminalize marijuana are one example of a potentially intersectional nonreformist reform that can encompass efforts to advance racial justice, end mass incarceration, change the narrative on public health, and limit the deportation pipeline.

(3) Reforms that lead people to question whether existing institutions can address people’s needs.  In moments of crisis and rupture, institutions such as the government scramble to try to restore confidence in their ability to rule.  Demands should not further reify the idea that existing institutions, which are built on white supremacy and racial capitalism, and which disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous, and People of Color, LGBTQ+, and low-income people, are sufficient to meet the scope or address the root causes of the problem.  Rather, they should make clear that key ruling forces or institutions are incompetent or illegitimate because they harm communities and that a new way of governing and distributing resources is needed to address the actual needs of people.  The Black Panther Party’s free breakfast program showed how a community mutual aid project revealed the inability of the state to provide for the Black community’s basic needs.[6]  Abolitionist reforms should have a radical critique of the state and address structural forms of oppression.

(4) Reforms that build people’s capacity to fight.  As Harnecker describes it, reforms should be “accompanied by a parallel effort to strengthen the popular movement, in such a way that growing sectors of the people organize and join the struggle.”[7]  This could include looking at whether campaigns are led by those who are directly impacted by the issue, training people in more massive numbers, and containing a political education or popular education component that raises people’s consciousness.  The 2019 teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles and Chicago are instances where the demands were far broader than pay and benefits.  Their demands were framed around the future of public education, economic and racial justice issues such as affordable housing, and increased support for students,[8] and engaged many families and students in not only supporting the strikes but continuing to fight for justice inside and outside of the classroom.

Using this criteria, abolitionist reforms have both an outcomea fundamental shift in power away from those in power—as well as a process where people can exert and build their own power for even bigger wins in the future.

II.  The Invest-Divest Framework

The calls to include undocumented immigrants in federal COVID-19 relief bills and to create immigrant-specific COVID-19 relief funds on the state and local levels are intended to provide direct financial assistance at a time when immigrants (and many others) are facing massive unemployment.  In response, several states and localities have set up immigrant-inclusive relief funds[9] that will put money directly in the hands of people struggling to pay for necessities.

While these efforts are important in addressing people’s basic needs, they are ultimately more about inclusion than transformation.  They do not articulate a broader transformational vision about the role of government as one that should truly address people’s needs beyond a specific crisis, nor do they lead people to question the legitimacy of the government.  Rather, these demands are based on the idea that governments should, whether based on morality or simply the desire to not accelerate a worsening recession, provide a bare minimum of support for constituents.

Arguably, this demand could cut across issue areas as it implicates broader economic justice issues beyond those affecting immigrants and creates potential alignment with antipoverty and tenants’ rights groups.  It does not, however, shift power into the hands of those who are demanding relief; it only shifts money.  And because it has mainly been led by advocates, unlike the massive protests and actions led by unemployed people in the 1930s,[10] winning relief funds has not built up the power of immigrant workers.

The missing piece of what could make the call to invest in immigrant communities into an abolitionist reform is calling for a simultaneous divestment from the police.  While many groups working against mass incarceration—such as the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) and Critical Resistance—have been using the invest-divest frame for years as a way to ultimately abolish the police and the prison industrial complex, the call to defund the police has gained much more popular momentum after widespread protests in response to the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, Yassin Mohamed, and many other Black people at the hands of police.  The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors recently approved the Reimagine LA proposal, which puts a ballot measure on the November ballot to permanently reallocate 10 percent of the county budget (around one billion dollars) away from law enforcement and towards community programs such as counseling and mental health services.[11]  The Austin City Council unanimously voted to cut the police budget by a third ($150 million), with the funds reallocated to food programs, violence prevention, and other programs.[12]

Without requiring that funds for communities, including immigrants, should come from the budgets of police, prisons, and other actors of mass incarceration, the call to invest will be constrained to working within the parameters of existing budgets, for which many local governments are quickly moving towards austerity measures.  Decreasing police budgets will lead to less policing and will allow us to reimagine public safety and shift power away from law enforcement into the hands of the community.  Engaging in the campaigns to invest-divest, which typically include participatory budgeting processes where community members decide where resources should go, will also strengthen people’s ability to understand and change institutions.

III. Free Them All Campaigns

Groups have long called for people to be released from ICE detention, ranging from calls to release specific individuals to campaigns to shut down entire detention centers.  With COVID-19 rapidly spreading in detention centers, putting detained immigrants, staff, and their communities at heightened risk of illness and death, fighting for release has become even more of a matter of life or death.  The situation in detention centers is like “a tinderbox” just waiting to be lit, according to law professor Wendy Parmet.[13]  ICE’s website states that there were 21,402 people in immigration detention on August 14, 2020 (down from 25,911 as of May 13, 2020).[14]  As of August 14, ICE had tested 23,964 people and 1052 of those—or 4.4 percent—were positive.[15]  This number is likely a drastic underreporting of the number of people in detention with COVID-19, with the actual number of people who have been infected in ICE detention perhaps fifteen times higher.[16]

Groups across the country, from New York to New Jersey to California to Texas, launched #FreeThemAll campaigns to demand the mass release of people in ICE custody.[17]  The campaigns targeted local and state elected officials, such as governors and county supervisors, as well as federal officials and agencies, such as ICE and members of Congress.  In some instances, the demands also included ending the transfer of people from one detention facility to another and stopping the transfers of people from county jails and state prisons to ICE, as well as halting immigration arrests and enforcement.

In many places, immigrants’ rights groups worked with prison abolition and criminal justice reform organizations to also demand the release of people from criminal custody.  As stated in Detention Watch Network’s #FreeThemAll toolkit:

[I]t is imperative that immigrant rights organizations work in solidarity and coordination with local anti-incarceration organizations to call for the release of everyone in cages, and an end to raids and local enforcement operations. . . .  [I]t’s crucial that organizers supporting the release of people detained in ICE custody uplift the demands of groups working to dismantle the prison industrial complex.[18]

The demand for freedom was led by people in detention in several places, including at the Otay Mesa and Mesa Verde detention centers in California.[19]  The men at Mesa Verde protested the violence against Black lives through a hunger strike led by Black immigrants and demanded broad changes to the police as well as immigration and criminal justice systems.[20]

When connected to broader decarceral calls, campaigns calling for the release of all people from detention are abolitionist reforms, as they contain a transformative vision of a country free of police and prisons.  By showing that detention and mass incarceration are harmful to individuals’ immediate and long-term health, and redefining community safety as places where people are with their loved ones and have the proper support networks, #FreeThemAll campaigns show that detention centers, jails, and prisons are inherently flawed and ultimately unnecessary.  They call on us to imagine a world without cages and to reimagine public safety.  Other past and current work to reimagine existing systems include: mutual aid projects such as Food Not Bombs that prefigure community self-determination; Community Land Trusts that redefine ownership as community stewardship, and Rapid Response Networks that build people’s ability to respond to state violence such as raids.

When immigration campaigns are connected to the movement to end mass incarceration, and not just limited to seeking the release of immigrants or the release of particular “sympathetic” immigrants (such as children or people who do not have criminal convictions), they encompass intersectional demands that can bring together people working on racial justice, decarceration, and immigrants’ rights.

#FreeThemAll campaigns that name the underlying factors driving the mass incarceration of both immigrants and nonimmigrants—white supremacy[21] aimed at controlling and punishing communities of color as well as the corporate profit motive[22] driving the growth of the prison industrial complexalso address structural forms of oppression.  This makes clear that limited improvements such as releasing a few people or improving medical care in detention facilities do not address root problems.  Rather, similar to policing, carceral facilities must be shrunk down, dismantled, and eventually abolished.

Finally, these campaigns frequently involve people who are directly impacted by incarceration and bring in additional sectors or groups of people such as health providers and faith-based groups.  These actions allow us to push for bigger changes when some people are released and build the capacity of individuals and institutions to fight.


In conclusion, both the invest-divest framework and the calls to release people from carceral facilities including detention centers contain the possibility of abolitionist reforms.  They expose the limits of reforming existing policing and carceral institutions and the need to instead fundamentally change or eliminate them.  They reduce rather than strengthen the scale and scope of policing and imprisonment, and they connect the fight for better living conditions to more transformative political possibilities.

[1].       New York Governor Andrew Cuomo issued several executive orders pausing evictions.  See Caroline Spivack, These Are the Protections New Yorkers Have From Eviction, Curbed N.Y. (Aug. 14, 2020), https://ny.curbed.com/2020/3/26/21192343/coronavirus-new-york-eviction-moratorium-covid-19 [https://perma.cc/2A3R-8AAZ].  In San Francisco, Mayor London Breed ordered an eviction moratorium for nonpayment of rent because of the pandemic.  See Bay City News, San Francisco Mayor Declares Moratorium on Coronavirus-Related Evictions, NBC Bay Area (Mar. 13, 2020), https://www.nbcbayarea.com/news/local/san-francisco/san-francisco-mayor-declares-moratorium-on-coronavirus-related-evictions/2254382 [https://perma.cc/2F6D-YMYH].

[2].       Los Angeles County’s eviction moratorium was extended through September 30, 2020.  See About L.A. County’s Temporary Eviction Moratorium and Rent Freeze, L.A. Cnty. Consumer & bus. affs., https://dcba.lacounty.gov/noevictions/?fbclid=IwAR3jsXd5ZohqpferxCid58cy2cx-k2py1gVjxmP5U60WHBKU5LEF19G3iMw [https://perma.cc/54Q6-CG5W] (last visited Aug. 11, 2020).

[3].       On March 31, 2020 California granted early release to 3500 people in prisons, Paige St. John, California to Release 3,500 Inmates Early as Coronavirus Spreads Inside Prisons, L.A. Times (Mar. 31, 2020), https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-03-31/coronavirus-california-release-3500-inmates-prisons [https://perma.cc/6HBG-GDQN], followed by an additional order on July 10th to release 8000 people to help curb the spread of COVID-19 inside state prisons.  Press Release, Cal. Dep’t of Corrections & Rehab., CDCR Announces Additional Actions to Reduce Population and Maximize Space Systemwide to Address COVID 19 (July 10, 2020), https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/news/2020/07/10/cdcr-announces-additional-actions-to-reduce-population-and-maximize-space-systemwide-to-address-covid-19 [https://perma.cc/93W6-YM2S].  Illinois Governor JB Pritzker issued Executive Order 2020-13, ordering “[a]ll admissions to the Illinois Department of Corrections from all Illinois county jails [be] suspended.”  Ill. Exec. Order No. 2020-13 (Mar. 26, 2020), https://www2.illinois.gov/Pages/Executive-Orders/ExecutiveOrder2020–13.aspx [https://perma.cc/2B23-D8UW].  The suspension expired on July 26.  Ill. Exec. Order No. 2020-50 (July 27, 2020),  https://www2.illinois.gov/Pages/Executive-Orders/ExecutiveOrder2020-50.aspx [https://perma.cc/Y4VR-3ZKQ].

[4].       Los Angeles County reduced the number of people in jail by 5000 because of COVID-19 concerns.  See Charlotte Scott, LA County Jail Population Reduced by 5,000 Since Outbreak, Spectrum News (Apr. 30, 2020), https://spectrumnews1.com/ca/la-west/inside-the-issues/2020/04/30/l-a-county-jail-population-reduced-by-5-000-since-beginning-of-coronavirus-outbreak [https://perma.cc/2LKX-STM7].  The Vera Institute of Justice maintains a comprehensive list of jail populations and their reductions.  See Criminal Justice Responses to the Coronavirus Pandemic, Vera Inst. for Just., https://www.vera.org/projects/covid-19-criminal-justice-responses/covid-19-data [https://perma.cc/7F4Z-RHVV] (last visited July 6, 2020).

[5].       Marta Harnecker, Rebuilding the Left 131 (2007) (emphasis omitted).

[6].       Darryl Robertson, The Black Panther Party and the Free Breakfast for Children Program, Black Persps. (Feb. 26, 2016), https://www.aaihs.org/the-black-panther-party/ [https://perma.cc/ W9ZH-DCCK].

[7].       Harnecker, supra note 5, at 177.

<[8].       See Kalyn Belsha, Chicago, Where the Teachers Unions’ Demands Extend Far Past Salary, Is the Latest Front for ‘Common Good’ Bargaining, Chalkbeat (Oct. 8, 2019), https://www.chalkbeat.org/2019/10/8/21109097/chicago-where-the-teachers-union-s-demands-extend-far-past-salary-is-the-latest-front-for-common-goo [https://perma.cc/3KJJ-K4TQ].

[9].       The California Resilience Fund provides $75 million from the state to support undocumented Californians impacted by COVID-19.  See Press Release, Off. of Governor Gavin Newsom, Governor Newsom Announces New Initiatives to Support California Workers Impacted by COVID-19 (Apr. 15, 2020), https://www.gov.ca.gov/2020/04/15/governor-newsom-announces-new-initiatives-to-support-california-workers-impacted-by-covid-19 [https://perma.cc/G2M4-8S3A].  For more examples, see the Center for Popular Democracy and Local Progress’s list of immigrant-inclusive state and local COVID-19 response funds.  Ctr. for Popular Democracy & Loc. Progress, State and Local COVID-19 Response Funds That Provide Cash to Residents (2020), https://localprogress.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/State-and-Local-Covid-Response-Funds-4.17.20.pdf [https://perma.cc/PM27-7GQN].

[10].     See Frances Fox Piven & Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail 56–60 (1977) (describing crowds of unemployed people taking over relief offices until their demands were met, and the increasingly large numbers of demonstrations and marches at relief offices that led to the distribution of money and goods).

[11].     Joe Linton, County Approves Reimagine L.A., Funding Shift Measure Will Be on November Ballot, StreetsBlog LA (Aug. 4, 2020), https://la.streetsblog.org/2020/08/04/county-approves-reimagine-l-a-funding-shift-measure-will-be-on-november-ballot/ [https://perma.cc/AA2C-4BWL]; see also Reimagine LA, https://reimagine.la [https://perma.cc/J46A-QYWA] (last visited Aug. 18, 2020).

[12].     See Meena Venkataramanan, Austin City Council Votes to Cut Police Department Budget By One-Third, Reinvest Money in Social Services, Tex. Trib. (Aug. 13, 2020), https://www.texastribune.org/2020/08/13/austin-city-council-cut-police-budget-defund/


[13].     Cindy Carcamo, Andrea Castillo, Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Maura Dolan, Brittny Mejia & Molly O’Toole, Coronavirus Is Turning an Overloaded Immigration System Into a ‘Tinderbox’, L.A. Times (Mar. 18, 2020), https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-03-18/coronavirus-strains-immigration-system [https://perma.cc/K5UD-ZUPT] (quoting Wendy Parmet, Professor of Law and Public Health, Northeastern University).

[14].     ICE Guidance on COVID-19, U.S. Immigr. & Customs Enf’t, https://www.ice.gov/coronavirus [https://perma.cc/2G6S-4D3S] (last visited Aug. 18, 2020) (follow the “ICE Detainee Statistics” hyperlink); Immigration Prof, Coronavirus: ICE Confirms First Case of COVID-19 at Immigration Detention Center in Adelanto, ImmigrationProf Blog (May 31, 2020), https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/immigration/2020/05/coronavirus-ice-confirms-first-case-of-covid-19-at-immigration-detention-center-in-adelanto.html [https://perma.cc/P46G-YKYJ].

[15].     ICE Guidance on COVID-19, supra note 14 (follow the “ICE Detainee Statistics” hyperlink).

[16].     See Nina Siulc, Vera’s New Prevalence Model Suggests COVID-19 Is Spreading Through ICE Detention at Much Higher Rates Than Publicized, Vera Inst. Just. (June 4, 2020), https://www.vera.org/blog/covid-19-1/veras-new-prevalence-model-suggests-covid-19-is-spreading-through-ice-detention-at-much-higher-rates-than-publicized [https://perma.cc/E3FG-F63L].

[17].     See, e.g., COVID-19 Class-Action Lawsuit: Detained Immigrants Demand Release From Elizabeth Detention Center, Am. Friends Serv. Comm. (May 15, 2020), https://www.afsc.org/newsroom/covid-19-class-action-lawsuit-detained-immigrants-demand-release-elizabeth-detention-center [https://perma.cc/JHD7-VR6Nl]; Dignity Not Detention Coal., Stop Transfers & Release People From Immigration Prisons #FlattenTheCurve Toolkit (2020), https://docs.google.com/document/d/1d7Cx83c3IYvKBUPlMHuajNg0UYazDS12eatlSlVC_E4/edit?usp=sharing [https://perma.cc/4DBF-4F4P].

[18].     Detention Watch Network, #FreeThemAll: Toolkit to Support Local Demands for Mass Release of People in ICE Custody 2 (2020), https://docs.google.com/document/d/1d5O71qvC3-xkwGO3F61cLytjoVgzBohs18RP2LvV6LM/edit?usp=sharing [https://perma.cc/J9W9-9PUP].

[19].     Tatiana Sanchez, ‘Cry for Help’: ICE Detainees Beg Lawmakers to Act After Coronavirus Death, S.F. Chron. (May 14, 2020), https://www.sfchronicle.com/news/article/This-is-a-cry-for-help-ICE-detainees-beg-15268548.php [https://perma.cc/6CV4-JDCP].

[20].     See Interfaith Movement for Human Integrity, United in the Fight for Liberation, YouTube (June 8, 2020), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QlQnjqDPkMw&feature=youtu.be [https://perma.cc/7N4M-5G8Q].

[21].     See Why Freedom for Immigrants Believes in Abolishing Immigration Detention, Freedom for Immigrants, https://www.freedomforimmigrants.org/why-abolition [https://perma.cc/BE5C-G7RY] (last visited Aug. 18, 2020).

[22].     See Dana Nickel, Who Profits From Migrant Detention in the US?, Globe Post (Aug. 19, 2019), https://theglobepost.com/2019/08/19/profit-migrant-detention/ [https://perma.cc/6KW8-J9JS].

About the Author

Shiu-Ming Cheer is the Director of Movement Building & Strategic Partnerships with the National Immigration Law Center. She began her legal career began as a Soros Justice Fellow representing detained immigrants facing deportation and has a long history of involvement in social justice and leftist organizing projects, campaigns, and coalitions.