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What Democrats Say on Immigration

Terry H. Schwadron

July 26, 2019

For Donald Trump, the ultimate in comprehensive immigration reform would take about 15 minutes to detail, as he has said many times. For Democrats, the ultimate always has been “comprehensive” change, including legal paths to naturalization, a complex plan that would take far longer to negotiate — if that is, in fact, what they want to do.

At its heart, Trump thinks he can achieve what he wants by fiat. Curiously, many Democrats seem to endorse acting alone too. In Trump’s case, that reflects ego; for Democrats, it seems to mirror the practicalities of dealing with a split Congress.

As this issue supplants all but health care in the election, it’s worth taking a look at what our candidates actually do say they want. We’ll hear more at the second debate next week.

Trump’s approach is easy: He just wants to end current systems and values, undoing much of now-lawful asylum procedures, insisting that migrants wait elsewhere to hear whether they have been approved to enter this country, reworking visa and legal means of immigration into tests of guaranteed success measures for new arrivals, stopping family “chain migration,” and build the Wall.

He’s successfully tuned out the humanitarian and racialist effects of all of this, denied that there are any problems at detention centers or in separating children from families, and made the issue Ground Zero for his reelection campaign. Basically, he’s argue that we shouldn’t have immigrants unless they have the means to pay their own way, speak English, and have a guaranteed job — what he calls “merit.”

The hard part is doing everything his way or getting nothing.

Vice President Mike Pence went to two border facilities this week, managed to actually witness overcrowding and unkempt conditions for adult men, and still emerge somehow blaming Democrats for conditions in which migrants are being held — despite supplemental billions endorsed by both parties. This is the if-you-don’t-look, there-is-no-problem approach to problem solving.

In a Slate magazine piece, Leon Krauzeneatly laid out Democratic plan summaries that, in toto, suggest that while Democrats used to talk about overhauling the country’s immigration system but now, all they can promise is to end Trump’s abuses.

The only live movement on comprehensive approaches seems to be in private discussions between Senators Dick Durbin, D-IL, and Lindsay Graham, R-SC. Since Donald Trump would have to agree with any such outcome, we are confident only that such rational talk will fail. In recent years, Congress has repeatedly failed to reach a bipartisan agreement on the issue. For immigration advocates, the prospect of comprehensive reform — or a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants currently in the United States — now seems almost impossible, Krause argues.

Moreover, while the still more than 20 Democratic candidates for president seem to agree to a person that Trump’s immigration policies are ineffective, punitive and often cruel, we voters are hearing mostly that individuals would stop the worst of Trump. But the promises are mostly in the details, and not for an ambitious legislative overhaul of the full immigration system. Whether that is for political calculation of for lack of imagination is not clear.

Julián Castro,the only Latino in the contest, was the first to come out with a major plan, and others ended up following. He plans to fight for a path to citizenship for the country’s millions of undocumented immigrants, and to offer immediate protection for Dreamers, both parts of previous efforts. His new twist is to repeal Section 1325 of the U.S. Code, making unlawful entry into the country a misdemeanor instead of a civil offense. He said he wants bipartisan legislative efforts to look at the whole, but promises executive actions to undo Trump policies. Castro rebuked Beto O’Rourke during the first Democratic debate for failing to do his “homework” on immigration and for not joining in the repeal effort. But basically, Castro says, “The next President, must start by reversing the cruel policies of the Trump administration — including the Muslim ban, wasteful spending on a pointless wall, and cuts to the refugee program — and ending the vile rhetoric that has scapegoated and vilified immigrants.”

O’Rourke, who grew up on the border between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez, unveiled a plan in late May that, like Booker’s, mainly focuses on the urgent reversal of Trump’s punitive policies. Under his proposal, O’Rourke would also resort to executive action to “stop the inhumane treatment of children, reunite families that have been separated, reform our asylum system, rescind the travel bans, and remove the fear of deportation for Dreamers and beneficiaries of programs like [Temporary Protective Status.]”

O’Rourke’s plan is less detailed when it comes to big changes. He sees a “community-based” visa program, in which “communities and congregations can welcome refugees through community sponsorship of visas.” Again, few of O’Rourke’s ideas for reform are totally new, and he, like Castro, is depending on the power of the presidency rather than Congress to bring about change.

Cory Bookersays his priority would be to “virtually eliminate immigration detention” in its current form. He has said he would not wait for a legislative debate and would focus on changes via executive action to address what he calls the Trump administration’s “moral vandalism.” “Trump used the power of the office so I will use the power of the office on Day 1,” he told me. This approach seems to acknowledge the severity of the current gridlock. Comprehensive reform, he told me, “is very difficult now with the problem we have in Congress.” Booker’s strategy also reveals the caution with which most Democratic candidates have chosen to tackle the issue, if at all.

Elizabeth Warrenhas what she calls a serious immigration blueprint. It includes a complete reimagining of both Customs and Border Protection and ICE, the country’s controversial immigration enforcement agency, elimination of private detention facilities and promotion of “community-based” supervision of immigrants who are waiting for their day in court. Warren would dramatically increase the number of refugees the United States takes in every year, from Trump’s 22,000 refugees in 2018 to 125,000. She would also give $1.5 billion dollars in aid to Central America, more than four times the amount the current administration had pledged before cutting aid to the region as punishment for its supposed lack of commitment in curbing immigration. She too acknowledges that Congress may be too gridlocked to act.

Other leading candidates suggested the party should seek to overturn Trump’s policies as soon as possible through executive action, not an unlikely legislative slog. Kamala Harrissaid she would “immediately, by executive action, reinstate DACA status and DACA protection” for Dreamers. Bernie Sandersagreed. “On Day One,” Sanders said, “we take out our executive order pen, and we rescind every damn thing on this issue that Trump has done.” Very little was said about comprehensive immigration reform.

As the Slate article argues, maybe it is good that the promises are focusing on more specific actions that a new president might take and less on the gobbledy-gook of hard-to-obtain Congressional negotiation. Still logic tells us that immigration represents a complex set of problems that defy easy answers and slogans.

For sure, however, global migration is going to get a whole lot worse with climate disruption, and a thoughtful approach would be better than worrying about singular detail or, worse, about sticking our heads in the sand and saying there is no problem here.


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