Image: Canon for Indiana/Jim Cooke

This piece is part of Splinter’s series The New Guard, where we interview progressive candidates who are running in 2018 midterm races across the country to shake up the Democratic Party establishment.

Dan Canon is one of three Democrats running for Congress in Indiana’s 9th Congressional District. He’s also one of a small handful of Democrats nationwide who have come out in favor of abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

Canon has some experience with ICE from his work as a civil rights attorney. Last year, he wrote in Slate about his experience trying to navigate ICE’s bureaucracy; he had trouble even finding out where his client, an undocumented man facing deportation, was being held.

Canon has also been at the forefront of numerous civil rights cases in the past five years. In 2013, he was the lead counsel in the lawsuit to overturn Kentucky’s ban on same-sex marriage. An appellate court ruled against Canon’s team, but the case went on to the U.S. Supreme Court, where it was folded into Obergefell v. Hodges—the case that made same sex marriage the law of the land.

If Canon wins the Democratic primary on May 8, he’ll face incumbent GOP Representative Trey Hollingsworth in November. Hollingsworth is a conservative multi-millionaire who wants to defund Planned Parenthood and opposes resettling Syrian refugees. Most election forecasters have rated the district—which encompasses most of southern Indiana—as safely Republican. But in a midterm year with a projected surge of Democratic turnout, no one can say for sure.

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I spoke to Canon about abolishing ICE, the future of the Democratic Party, and the joys of fundraising.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.


You’ve said that if more Americans dealt with ICE on a personal level, they would understand why you think abolishing ICE is a reasonable position. Can you tell me about how you arrived there?

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In Indiana, our communities tend to be pretty segregated. There are immigrant enclaves, like where I am in Clarksville and southern Indiana. As a result, a lot of people don’t know what’s going on in their own backyards. I’ve seen a little bit of how this sausage is made, and I don’t like it. And I think if Mr. or Mrs. America knew what was going on in their backyards, they wouldn’t be too happy about it. [ICE] is an organization that exists, essentially, to break up families, to needlessly detain nonviolent people for extraordinary periods of time. We treat people that are undocumented immigrants worse than the most heinous of accused criminals that are citizens.

You wrote last year about your experience trying to represent an undocumented man you say ICE agents “disappeared.” Can you tell me more about that case and what it revealed about how the agency operates?

He was in the United States because his village got taken over by the drug cartel. They ousted him and his family from his house. His wife was on track to receive protected asylum status, and he, for some reason, did not end up on that track. He was here supporting his children and his grandchildren, working and minding his own business. ICE scoops him up in the parking lot of his apartment building in the middle of night, for no reason other than the fact that he’s an undocumented immigrant. They take him to jail 90 miles away from his family. It’s a jail just like any other jail in Boone County, KY. They get about 45 minutes of visitation per week, if their families can afford to get out there and visit with them, which in and of itself is heinously cruel.

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They’re locked up with anybody from that county that could have been accused of any crime whatsoever, violent or nonviolent. There are few if any personnel in the region that can speak Spanish, so if you’ve got a non-English speaker that’s locked up there and saying they need medical care, they can’t get it. That too is heinously cruel.

Even as immigration lawyers, we have basically no access to information about the people that are detained. They will just move these folks to whatever facility, whenever they feel like it. As his lawyer, I don’t know when they’re about to move him. So I call the detention center one day, and he’s just gone. They haven’t given me any notice. They haven’t called me. They haven’t called his family. I mean, these people are treated like cattle. They are treated like animals. It’s absolutely disgraceful.

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I can tell you a hundred stories like this. They move folks in the dead of night, without giving their families any notice, in many cases without giving their lawyers any notice, and they move them all over the country—oftentimes in deplorable conditions and with little if any access to medical care or to their basic human needs.

Under our current criminal justice system, do undocumented immigrants have the same right to an attorney that U.S. citizens do?

No, absolutely not. They have no right to an attorney, and immigration authorities make it as hard as possible for us to represent them. They will not let you represent people for free unless you drive down to Memphis or Chicago and present your law license in person. This is a new thing. You have to go five hours away, which very few lawyers are going to do, to show your law license. It’s Orwellian. The immigration detention system is barbaric. It should be torn out by the roots and started over.

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What were the conversations you’ve had with ICE agents like?

I haven’t had that many. Usually, when I’ve talked to them it’s brief. I’ve had conversations with ICE agents where they will not refer to people that have been apprehended by name. They’ll just refer to them as “female,” for example. That was a conversation I had with an ICE agent: “Female was apprehended. Female is going to be sent back to her country of origin.” It’s like that. I don’t know how you make that come across in a written piece, but it’s dark.

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It is a system that is designed to make people disappear into black holes. It’s deliberately opaque. The prevailing attitude seems to be that these are not people at all, and that their job is to send as many people back to where they came from as possible, or put them in detention centers. There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of concern for what actually happens to the people once they’re apprehended.

Why did you decide to run for Congress?

I grew up in rural Indiana, the son of a single mom in the 1980s. I watched her work two or three jobs at a time. And I repaid all of that sacrifice and hard work when I was 17 by dropping out of high school. I kicked around and was a musician. After awhile of doing that, I decided that I wanted to do something else with myself, so I took out a bunch of loans and put myself through college. I went to law school to be a sounding board for folks that wouldn’t otherwise have access to a lawyer, like the people I grew up with. I have been doing civil rights litigation for about ten years.

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When you’re a lawyer that cares about social issues, they encourage you to run for office. I’ve always been like, “No, no, no, no, I’m not going to do that.” But after 2016, looking at what was happening to the country and what is still happening to the country, I was like, ‘Alright, maybe now is a good time.’ Whatever you think about 2016, it was a referendum on the status quo. People want real people and not polished, slick politicians to represent them. Whatever you think about the Trump campaign or the Sanders campaign, that’s kind of the message that is being sent. It’s a good time for leftist populist types, and that’s what I am.

I feel like so many Democratic candidates these days will say, “On background, of course I support Medicare for all.” But on the record, they feel like they need to play the part of the centrist Democrat.

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I don’t get it. Why in the hell would we do that to ourselves? I think we do ourselves a tremendous disservice by playing politics that way. In the Midwest, people know on a visceral level when you’re avoiding talking about what you really believe, and you are using weasel words to avoid hitting what you believe in directly. Republicans have no problem coming out and saying all these crazy things. If we just look like watered down versions of them, why would anybody ever vote for us?

We’re so focused on whether or not we’re going to win this next election that we don’t think about the bigger picture. In the long term, we’re trying to actually change the culture that we’re living in and make our society a better place. If we don’t talk about what we really believe in, we can’t plant the seeds to make those big changes. If we don’t win in 2018, we need to at least start the conversations that are going to lead us to win in 2020, or 2022, or 2040, or whenever it happens. But if we don’t ever start those conversations, then we’re never going to win.

How frustrating is the process of dialing for dollars as a candidate? That’s one aspect that seems to prevent a lot of people from running for office—feeling like they don’t have enough money to run. 

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Luckily, I have more willingness than I have good sense. I guess I was too naive to know that that would be such a big part of this, or it might have scared me off too. But yeah, the fundraising aspect of this whole thing is the least enjoyable part, and that’s putting it very mildly. It takes time and energy away from what should be the work of an elected representative. If you are spending all day, every day, trying to talk to people who have enough money to finance your campaign, you’re losing the time that you should be talking to the working poor about how to get them out of their situation.

If you could travel back in time and tell your 17-year-old self that you’re running for Congress, what do you think his reaction would be?

Disbelief and probably disgust.