Over the past couple of decades, Democratic presidential candidates have made a habit of promising comprehensive immigration reform to woo the Latino electorate. Barack Obama vowed to pursue an expansive change of the American immigration system within the first 100 days of his administration. He then had a brief political opening to push for reform but chose to spend his considerable capital—and his majority in Congress—on health care, much to the chagrin of immigrant rights groups.
Eight years later, despite the obvious resistance of an increasingly intransigent Republican Party in Congress, Hillary Clinton pledged to push for full-fledged immigration reform within her first three months in office. It’s impossible to know whether Clinton would have kept her promise, but her plan would almost certainly have ended in disappointment. 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.
Most of the Democratic candidates currently seeking the party’s nomination agree. Priorities have shifted. Democratic politicians seem united by the urgent need to overturn Donald Trump’s punitive enforcement policies through executive action. Gone are the promises of an ambitious legislative overhaul of the country’s immigration procedures.
Last Tuesday, Sen. Cory Booker became the third Democratic candidate to unveil a plan on immigration. Booker’s priority would be to “virtually eliminate immigration detention” in its current form. When I interviewed him in Los Angeles a couple of days later, he told me he that, as president, 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.
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With the first Democratic primaries less than half a year away, few candidates have laid out a serious proposal to fix the country’s immigration system. Beto 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 enduring changes to the country’s immigration laws. Other than a “community-based” visa program, in which “communities and congregations can welcome refugees through community sponsorship of visas,” few of O’Rourke’s ideas for reform are unprecedented. He has not offered a convincing explanation as to how he would extract Republican cooperation for his legislative agenda on the issue. Like Booker, O’Rourke seems to believe meaningful change will come mainly through the power of the presidency.
As the only Latino in the race, Julián Castro has tried to own the issue within the crowded Democratic field. He rebuked O’Rourke during the first Democratic debate in Miami for failing to do his “homework” on immigration, a barb intended to reduce his fellow Texan’s heft on the matter. Castro was also the first candidate to publish an immigration plan. Castro calls for an overhaul of the way the United States processes immigrants and potential refugees. He plans to fight for a path to citizenship for the country’s undocumented community and immediate protection for Dreamers, measures long sought by immigrant advocates and often included in previous reform efforts. Castro’s project would also repeal Section 1325 of the U.S. Code, making unlawful entry into the country a misdemeanor instead of a civil offense. Fully aware that his proposal would need congressional approval, Castro has said he still hopes both parties “can work together on some kind of immigration reform legislation.” That may be, but his immigration plan still prioritizes dismantling Trump’s policies through executive action. “The next President,” Castro writes, “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.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been the only candidate in the party’s top tier of presidential hopefuls to lay out a serious immigration blueprint. As usual for her, Warren’s plan includes an ambitious list of policy ideas. These include a complete reimagining of both Customs and Border Protection and ICE, the country’s controversial immigration enforcement agency. Like Booker, Warren would “eliminate” private detention facilities and prioritize other alternatives, like “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 in Warren’s first year. 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.
Still, for all its Warren-ian aspirations, the plan grapples with a familiar hurdle: Republican unyieldingness. “I’ll work with Congress to pass broad-reaching reform, but I’m also prepared to move forward with executive action if Congress refuses to act,” writes Warren in the proposal’s last paragraph.
During the first Democratic debate, other leading candidates, most of whom have yet to lay out detailed immigration plans of their own, also suggested the party should seek to overturn Trump’s policies as soon as possible through executive action, not an unlikely legislative slog. Sen. Kamala Harris said she would “immediately, by executive action, reinstate DACA status and DACA protection” for Dreamers. Sen. Bernie Sanders agreed. “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.
There is something refreshing in the Democratic field’s skepticism on the possibilities of immigration reform. The immigrant community has long had to endure unfulfilled and untenable promises. And yet, the Democratic consensus on executive action as the main method to move the needle in any significant form on immigration also feels like a form of capitulation.
Comprehensive reform is still the only definitive path toward normalcy for the undocumented community in the United States. The humanitarian crisis at the border is much the same: It needs to be tackled through imaginative and humane legislation, not with politically expedient stopgap measures that find a way around the law. The government’s inability to compassionately address the fate of millions over the last 20 years has indeed been a moral failure. Republicans deserve most of the blame, all the more after their shameful enabling of Trump’s nativism. But that should be no excuse for the Democratic Party. On immigration, a loftier goal is worth defending, however improbable.