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A photo released in February 2017 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows people being arrested during an ICE operation. Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement / AP A photo released in February 2017 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows people being arrested during an ICE operation. Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement / AP

A photo released in February 2017 by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement shows people being arrested during an ICE operation. Charles Reed/U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement / AP

By Vanessa Swales August 29, 2022

GOP Senate group off the mark with claim that Barnes backs abolishing ICE

If Your Time is short

  • There is a photo of Barnes holding an "Abolish ICE" T-shirt, but he has said was holding it in solidarity with immigrants who were being separated from children at the border.

  • The National Republican Senatorial Committee also cited an appearance by Barnes at an event held by a group that supports abolishing U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement, but the event was about voting rights issues.

  • The NRSC did not provide any direct statements from Barnes that he holds this position – and he has stated clearly multiple times he backs reforming ICE, not eliminating it.


As Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, a Democrat, is set to face-off with Republican U.S. Sen. Ron Johnson in the Nov. 8, 2022, election, his stance on immigration has taken a hit from the Republican opposition. 

Or at least his perceived stance.

In an Aug. 10, 2022, news release, part of a series aiming to paint Barnes as extreme, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), claimed that Barnes "supports abolishing ICE."

ICE, of course, is U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, one of three agencies created in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks when Congress passed the Homeland Security Act.

The agency says its "mission is to protect America from the cross-border crime and illegal immigration that threaten national security and public safety."  The agency’s detention and deportation operations have faced the ire of immigration rights groups and others, putting ICE at the center of controversy for many years.

But it wasn’t until spring 2018 when "the Abolish ICE move­ment began to shift from a hashtag to a more formal stance," according to the Brennan Center for Justice

Even then, as with the "defund the police" efforts, there are many different views on just what it means. Some want the agency eliminated entirely, others prefer reforms. 

In a July 2018 article, the Brennan Center noted that if ICE were to be abolished, "other parts of the govern­ment would likely take up some of the agency’s respons­ib­il­it­ies."

So, returning to the claim: Does Barnes support "abolishing ICE"?

Does Barnes really want to abolish ICE?

When asked for backup, a spokesperson for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which aims to elect Republican senators across the country, pointed to two things:

The first is a 2018 photo of Barnes holding up a red T-shirt that reads "Abolish ICE." The photo was shared at the time on Reddit and has since made the rounds on Twitter, especially in the wake of Barnes winning the Democratic nomination in August. 

The photo surfaced shortly after Barnes responded to a tweet from a Madison-based activist, who offered him the shirt from the Democratic Socialists of America.

"Don't know how I missed this reply, but I need that," Barnes replied to the tweet on July 4, 2018. At the time he was in the midst of his successful campaign for lieutenant governor.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee also pointed to when Barnes headlined an event on Nov. 15, 2021, for the Brooklyn, New York-based advocacy group Center for Popular Democracy, a group that has endorsed Barnes.

But the committee offered no reference to anything Barnes said at the event, or elsewhere on abolishing ICE. 

Instead, it was mostly guilt by association: The NRSC shared a Vox article that noted the group was involved in a June 2018 march during which "protesters draped themselves in silver thermal blankets — evoking images of migrant kids in shelters — and chanted ‘Abolish ICE’ and ‘We care.’"

In an October 2021 news release, Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, said, "The repeated violence perpetrated by (Customs and Border Patrol) and ICE prove time and time again that these agencies cannot be reformed and must be abolished." 

The November 2021 event that Barnes attended, however, focused on voting rights issues and the mobilizing of young and first-time voters, especially those from Black and Latino communities.

"This group endorsed the Lt. Governor; he did not endorse them or their policies," wrote Maddy McDaniel, a spokesperson for Barnes, in an email to PolitiFact Wisconsin. "At no point in the event or during any interaction with this group did he advocate for abolishing ICE."

That’s a valid point: If Barnes supports abolishing ICE, shouldn’t there be evidence of him saying so?

That brings us to the T-shirt photo.

Examining the claim

McDaniel made a similar argument, saying, "Simply holding up a T-shirt that was given as a gift does NOT equate to supporting a policy." But he did hold up the shirt.

Barnes has said little about the circumstances. 

A March 2022 article in the Wisconsin Examiner noted:  "He held up the Abolish ICE T-shirt, he says, as an expression of solidarity with immigrants who were reacting with horror at the time to scenes of children ripped from their parents at the border."

McDaniel declined to say anything more. Instead, she argued that: "The Lt. Governor has been crystal clear that he does not support abolishing ICE." 

What is Barnes’ position?

Let’s dig in from that angle and what Barnes himself has said. That is, the positions he has publicly taken.

Barnes has made clear during the campaign, and in recent years, that he does not support abolishing ICE. Rather, he has called for the agency to be reformed. In a video on his website, Barnes says: "We need comprehensive immigration reform that secures the border and also includes a path to citizenship."

McDaniel also pointed to articles from the Wisconsin Examiner and Spectrum News in which Barnes said he does not support abolishing ICE.

In addition, in February 2022, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel published a piece addressing questions surrounding the photo of Barnes and his stance on abolishing ICE.

"I am not a part of the Abolish ICE movement because no one slogan can capture all the work we have to do," Barnes said. "But I do support comprehensive reform in our immigration agencies that protect our borders while establishing a pathway to citizenship and ensuring no one coming to this country has to experience traumas like family separation."

Asked if he sided with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who wants to dismantle ICE, or with Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who aims to overhaul the federal agency, Barnes told the Journal Sentinel: "I’m not in any one person’s camp, but I respect what they both bring to this important conversation."

Our ruling

The National Republican Senatorial Committee claimed that Barnes "supports abolishing ICE."

But the group identified no direct evidence or statements from the candidates saying such a thing — only an appearance for a group that supports that position, and a photo with a T-shirt.

At the same time, there is plenty of evidence that Barnes has taken a less extreme position on the matter, calling for reforms.

In other words, we have a statement that "contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression." That’s our definition of Mostly False.

And that’s our rating. 




Our Sources

Email from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Aug. 10, 2022.

Reddit, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes with his DSA t-shirt photo.

Twitter, Tweet from Matt L. Barron, Jan. 11, 2022.

Twitter, Tweet from Mandela Barnes, July 4, 2018.

The Center for Public Democracy, Hold Our Power Strategy Launch (video posted on YouTube), Nov. 15, 2021.

WisPolitics, Center for Popular Democracy Action: Endorses Mandela Barnes for U.S. Senate.

Vox, Nearly 600 women arrested at immigration protests in Senate building, June 28, 2018.

The Center for Public Democracy, Our Immigration System Must Stop Treating Our Communities as Threats that Need Targeting, Oct.1, 2021.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) website.

The Department of Justice, Federal Law Enforcement Officers, 2004, July, 2006.

The Brennan Center for Justice, The Abolish ICE Movement Explained, July 30, 2018.

Mandela Barnes for Wisconsin website.

Email statement from Mandela Barnes’ spokesperson, Maddy McDaniel.

The Wisconsin Examiner, The optimist: Mandela Barnes’ Senate campaign aims to bring Wisconsin back together, March 31, 2022.

Spectrum News, ‘The Senate is broken’: Mandela Barnes looks to earn broad support to flip U.S. Senate seat, March 15, 2022.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Bice: Mandela Barnes distances self from increasingly unpopular, left-wing defund police and abolish ICE movements, Feb. 15, 2022.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders website, Issues.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, A Fair and Welcoming Immigration System, July 11, 2019.

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Vanessa Swales

GOP Senate group off the mark with claim that Barnes backs abolishing ICE

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