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Majority of Democrats Want Immigration Policy Reform, Not Open Borders

September 5, 2019 by Dan McCue
Asylum-seeking immigrants line up at a border fence in Tijuana, Mexico, on June 20, 2018. (Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON – When it comes to opposition talking points, the myth that Democrats advocate for “open borders” is both the most preposterous — and persistent — assertion of the still-young 2020 campaign season.

Even Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a self-described democratic socialist and therefore the most “left” of the Democrat candidates in this year’s race for the White House, has taken pains on the campaign trail to distance himself from such talk.

“What we need is comprehensive immigration reform,” he said last Spring during a town hall in Oskaloosa, Iowa. “If you open the borders, my God, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it. So that is not my position.”

So where are moderate Democrats running for president on the issue?

As one might expect with such a large and diverse group of White House hopefuls, opinions vary. What’s clear, however, is that all share a commitment to change when it comes to the nation’s immigration policy, open borders of any kind are the last thing on their minds.

Former Vice President and current frontrunner Joe Biden has positioned himself as the voice of centrist reason.

According to his website, as president, Biden would pursue “a humane immigration policy that upholds our values, strengthens our economy, and secures our border,” all goals that are as mainstream as baseball and mom’s apple pie.

Speaking to trade unionists in Nevada in May, Biden delivered a broad critique of President Donald Trump’s hard-line immigration policies, including his upending of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

“Deporting Dreamers just a few days before their high school graduation, separating children from their parents on the border. That isn’t who we are. We’re better than that,” said Biden, who played a key role in the Obama administration championing the cause of undocumented residents who were brought to the country when they were young.

He also promised to end the deportation of veterans who aren’t U.S. citizens, maintaining that “anybody who’s fought for the United States of America should not be in a position to be deported.”

Like Biden, South Bend, Ind. Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Representative John Delaney, and Sens. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar all support the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the creation of a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 3.6 million undocumented immigrants who were brought to this country as children.

In Congress, it should be noted here, House Democrats have rallied around H.R. 2, the Dream and Promise Act, a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and those with temporary humanitarian protections.

Of the presidential candidates, Sen. Booker has unveiled the most comprehensive immigration plan, including expanding the availability of legal counseling for migrants seeking asylum, reforming Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, and appointing a special envoy to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to address issues leading to the mass migration of asylum seekers at the source.

“We’re going to stop the criminalization of immigration and go back to the system as it was before [Trump] was president,” Booker said on MSNBC. “It was a civil system which shows evidence-based models of having a better standard for protecting our country, for evaluating legitimate asylum claims, and not violating people’s human rights.”

In the Senate, Booker co-sponsored a bill to reunite separated immigrant families, and introduced legislation to curtail the practice of detaining immigrants who were picked up by ICE or Border Patrol for extended periods of time.

Former Representative Beto O’Rourke has also made immigration a central focus of his campaign.

Among other things, he’s called for rescinding the travel ban, ending family separation, halting work on the border wall, eliminating funding for for-profit detention centers, and overhauling the asylum system.

Significantly, he’s also called for getting tougher on the human smugglers and traffickers who prey on migrants headed to the U.S. border. He’s said in the past that he supports a George W. Bush-era law that criminalizes border crossings on the grounds that there needs to be a legal mechanism to hold such traffickers legally responsible for their actions.

Sen. Klobuchar has called for reforming, rather than abolishing the nation’s border protection agencies, and Sen. Harris has said she wants to “re-examine” their role.

Buttigieg, meanwhile is calling for comprehensive immigration reform that would “end the backlogs in our lawful immigration and asylum processes.”

At present, it is estimated there is a backlog of 850,000 asylum cases waiting for a day in court and fewer than 450 judges to handle them.

But if there’s been a definitive statement by a moderate Democrat on the “open border” question, it came from former Representative Delaney during a recent interview with the Hill.

“I just don’t think at this moment in time when we have a huge kind of surge at our border sending a message that we’re going to decriminalize crossings is the right thing to do,” Delaney said.

So how do President Trump and his Republican Party colleagues justify claims that the Democratic Party is the “party of open borders” if the majority of the party’s standard-bearers have never called for such a thing?

By harping on the proposals of a vocal few in the race.

In fact, only one candidate has come close to touting an open borders policy, and that’s Sander’s closest competitor on the left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., who has called for decriminalizing border crossings in accordance with a policy she says “aligns with our values.”

In July, writing in Medium, Warren said, “We already have the tools to effectively track and monitor individuals without shoving them into cages and camps along the border.

“As President, I’ll issue guidance ensuring that detention is only used where it is actually necessary because an individual poses a flight or safety risk,” she said.

Like Warren, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro has also called for decriminalizing illegal border crossings.

During the first Democratic candidate debate, held in June in Miami, Florida, Castro said his immigration plan includes “getting rid of Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act, to go back to the way we used to treat this when somebody comes across the border, not to criminalize desperation, to treat that as a civil violation.”

He explained his position by pointing to the Trump administration’s family separations at the border, a policy he called “horrendous.”

“They use that law, Section 1325, to justify under the law separating little children from their families,” he said.

A number of the Democratic hopefuls who shared Castro’s view have already dropped out of the presidential race, having failed to gain traction with the voters. They include Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Rep. Seth Moulton, and most recently, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

Castro has also called for breaking up ICE and shifting its enforcement and removal powers to the Justice Department, and has said he would create a pathway to citizenship not just for Dreamers, but also for people with Temporary Protected Status and undocumented residents.

He’s also said he would end the policy of detaining refugees who present themselves at the border and would establish a “21st-century Marshall Plan” for Central America to re-establish stability in the region.

“Extending a hand of friendship, of opportunity to countries in our hemisphere – this approach is much more in keeping with our values,” he said during an interview with The Guardian newspaper earlier this year. “This is a mutually beneficial way to engage Central Americans, not a slap in the face like the wall.”As for Sanders? He’s said on Twitter that if elected,  his first executive order “will be to reverse every single thing President Trump has done to demonize and harm immigrants.”

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