NASHVILLE — U.S. Senate Democratic hopeful Phil Bredesen says he wants no part of efforts by some national progressives to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the agency that's become a flash point for liberals as they rally against President Donald Trump's immigration policies.
"No," the former Tennessee governor said in a one-word statement to the Times Free Press on the question of whether he favored abolishing the agency.
Some U.S. Senate Democrats, including potential 2020 presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand, want Congress to to abolish ICE. Warren said it should be replaced "with something that reflects our morality."
Just last month, there were large-scale immigration marches against Trump's policies in which a number of demonstrators called on the agency to be abolished. And the issue caught fire in a New York Democratic primary contest in late June when challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who pledged to push for ICE's closure, defeated incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in an upset.
But a number of Democrats in more competitive states are shunning such calls.
ICE enforces federal laws governing border control, customs, trade and immigration. It was created in 2003 through a merger of the investigative and interior enforcement elements of the former U.S. Customs Service and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Asked to elaborate on Bredesen's single word dismissal of calls to abolish ICE, the former governor's campaign pointed to his prior statements on two immigration issues.
Bredesen has criticized what he called "taking terrified little children from their parents and incarcerating them in camps behind chain link fences" in a secretive process. "This is no longer the president's problem, or the Department of Homeland Security's problem. It is America's problem."
And Bredesen has also come out in support of extending the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allows undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children to remain in the country. He's called that a "deferred moral obligation to these young people. They were brought here as children, and in many cases have known no other home. Exiling them to a country that is completely foreign to them is morally bankrupt. We are better than that."
An official with the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition had no immediate comment on Bredesen's unwillingness to support abolishing ICE.
Meanwhile, Republican U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn on Tuesday renewed her attack on Bredesen's record on illegal immigration.
Campaign spokeswoman Abbi Sigler charged that as governor Bredesen's "policies made Tennessee a magnet for illegal aliens from other states seeking Tennessee state issued drivers' certificates. He and his friend Hillary Clinton oppose building President Trump's wall."
"Marsha Blackburn has always fought for the rule of law and strong interior enforcement," Sigler said, citing opposition by Blackburn, a Brentwood congresswoman, to federal funding for "sanctuary cities" and Blackburn's view that "we must support ICE as they work to deport criminal illegal aliens, combat child trafficking, and conduct operations against MS-13 gangs. "
Speaking with reporters last month during a visit to Shelbyville, Tennessee, Bredesen accused Blackburn of "trying to make lemonade out of lemons" on the issue of undocumented immigrants having legal authority to drive in Tennessee.
"It was in the Sundquist administration that they passed a bill giving drivers licenses to do that," said Bredesen, who in 2003 succeeded Republican Gov. Don Sundquist as governor.
Bredesen said when he became governor, his administration was approached by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security official about the driver's licenses, voicing concerns that they could be used by terrorists to fly on commercial flights.
"And what they recommended — this was a Republican administration — was that we change over to certificates and strip the ability to use them for airplane identification. They were driving certificates, they lost their identification capability. That's what we did. And it was a bipartisan move. I mean, it was heavily voted for by Democrats and Republicans. I mean, Diane Black voted for it both times and you can't get much more conservative than she is."
Black is running for the Republican nomination for governor.
Bredesen said he later moved to eliminate the non-ID certificates because "we were continuing to have problems with that."
Blackburn, a former state senator at the time, voted against the original Sundquist administration drivers license bill and also against the change to the non-official ID driving certificates.
In her statement, Blackburn spokeswoman Sigler said her boss "will stand with President Trump to enforce our immigration laws. For years Democratic policies, such as Phil Bredesen's, have encouraged illegal immigration and made ICE's job more difficult."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at email@example.com or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.