Is Abolish ICE a movement or just a slogan?

Is it a path to the White House for aspiring Democratic presidential hopefuls?

Or is it just the latest way for battle-ready Democrats to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory?

Such are the questions facing Democratic congressional candidates and presidential hopefuls as the hashtag AbolishICE pops up increasingly online, in political rallies and other political conversations as some sort of battle cry.

The slogan made national news when somebody reportedly shouted it in the background as Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant whose owner and workers didn't like the administration's "zero tolerance" immigration policy that had separated more than 2,000 children from the parents.

The slogan gained steam online and in the news after the stunning surprise victory last week by an insurgent primary candidate in New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The former bartender and Bernie Sanders campaign worker had made abolishing ICE a part of her platform one of three top issues on her platform, along with "Medicare for all" and free higher education Suddenly the issue became a political litmus test for aspiring presidential hopefuls on the left.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., became the first senator -- and possible presidential hopeful -- to call for the agency's elimination last week. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts in a Facebook post and in a speech at a protest in Boston called for rebuilding our immigration system and "replacing ICE with something that reflects our values."

Legislation that would get rid of the federal agency has been introduced by Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., and has the support of several Democratic colleagues in the House, including Earl Blumenauer of Oregon, Pramila Jayapal of Washington, Jim McGovern and Michael Capuano of Massachusetts, and Raúl Grijalva of Arizona.

Another possible presidential contender, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, stopped short of calling for abolition of ICE yet said that the agency needs to be re-examined, and "we need to probably think about starting from scratch."

All of which brings great glee to conservative talk show hosts and top Republicans, including President Donald Trump. The call to eliminate the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, which was created in 2003 in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, plays right into Trump's false claims that Democrats are soft on crime and want "open borders."

"When we have an 'infestation' of MS-13 GANGS in certain parts of our country, who do we send to get them out? ICE!" tweeted Trump on Tuesday morning. "They are tougher and smarter than these rough criminal elements that bad immigration laws allow into our country. Dems do not appreciate the great job they do! Nov." That last word of Trump tweetspeak apparently refers to the November elections.

That's Trump, taking every possible opportunity to hype up his demagogic appeal by exaggerating the size and threat of the MS-13 gang, as well as the criminality of immigrants in general.

Although most Americans may never have heard of ICE until the recent "zero tolerance" border eruptions, it's a powerful issue in heavily immigrant communities like Ocasio-Cortez' district.

Yet Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Illinois Democrat, opposed the abolition of ICE on CNN Sunday because, "If you abolish ICE now, you still have the same president with the same failed policies."

That makes sense. We should oppose the abolition of ICE, in my view, at least until we know what would replace it. If ICE needs reform, there are more alternatives than its abolition.

Yet Democrats, as divided by their moderate and extreme wings as the Republicans are, sound delighted by any issue or person who can bring back some of the unifying excitement generated by Barack Obama's rise a decade ago. Witness the exuberance generated by Ocasio-Cortez's unseating of Rep. Joe Crowley, a powerful Democratic leader who apparently lost touch with his district's voters.

That's OK. The people have spoken. But what works for a self-described "democratic socialist" in the Bronx is very different from what wins in, say, the suburban Pennsylvania district of U.S. Marine Corps veteran Conor Lamb, the young centrist Democrat who won a district in March that voted for Trump in 2016.

Democrats will do well to remember the late House Speaker Tip O'Neill's motto: "All politics is local." The "Abolish ICE" slogan gives ammunition to the president unless Democrats also make their own case for border security that will work better. Their motto, then, should not be "Abolish ICE" as much as it should be the figurative "Abolish Trump."

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com