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U.S. 2020: The Democratic Candidates on Immigration

By Paola Nagovitch

AS/COA Online looks at where the Democratic presidential contenders stood on one of the most polarizing issues in the United States today.

Donald Trump put immigration front and center on his agenda when he announced his presidential bid back in 2015. It’s an issue that rarely fades from the news cycle, given ongoing policy steps that range from building the infamous wall to cutting the annual refugee cap to forging a series of pacts akin to safe third country deals with the Northern Triangle countries.  

So it’s little surprise that many of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates made immigration reform a centerpiece of their campaigns. Some pledged to decriminalize border crossings, mirroring a key proposal put forth by former presidential candidate Julián Castro. Castro championed repealing Title 8, Section 1325 of U.S. immigration law to make illegal border crossings a civil offense. Section 1325 came into the spotlight due to Trump’s “zero-tolerance” immigration enforcement policy, which separates minors from their family members upon detention.  

While each of the Democratic presidential candidates as of late January supported establishing some form of pathway to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants currently in the United States, their policies diverged when it came to issues such as the wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.

Candidate graveyard

Joe Biden

  • The former Obama vice president and six-term Delaware senator would end the Trump administration’s Migration Protection Protocols policy, otherwise known as the “Remain in Mexico” program, which requires asylum seekers to wait out their court dates on Mexican soil.
  • Biden has vowed to protect the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and review Temporary Protected Status (TPS) programs. Biden’s platform states that TPS holders “who have been in the country for an extended period of time and built lives” in the United States will be offered a path to citizenship. TPS holders include citizens from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, and Nicaragua. 
  • Biden supports passing legislation to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who register with authorities, are up-to-date on their taxes, and pass background checks. He would allow cities and counties to petition for additional visas to support economic development. 
  • He would increase the U.S. annual global refugee admissions cap sevenfold to 125,000 from the 2020 fiscal year limit of 18,000, to slightly above the highest Obama cap of 110,000. 
  • Biden proposes setting aside a four-year, $4-billion aid package for Central America, making the aid dependent on factors, including reductions in gang and gender-based violence, improvements in education, and the implementation of anti-corruption measures. 
  • His platform does not include funding for extending existing border fencing, though it’s unclear where he stands on the issue. 

Candidate graveyard 

These are positions of candidates who dropped out of the race after this article was first published.

Michael Bennet

  • As part of the U.S. Senate’s bipartisan effort to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2013, the senior senator from Colorado helped negotiate legislation that would have established a pathway to citizenship for certain undocumented immigrants, expanded visa options, and set aside funding for 700 miles of border fencing. Though the 2013 bill died in the U.S. House of Representatives, Bennet continues to support these measures, including extending the U.S.-Mexico border fence if experts recommend it

Michael Bloomberg

  • The billionaire businessman supports creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and increasing foreign aid to curb immigration, describing doing so as a “no brainer” in an interview with The San Diego Union Tribune, adding that, “This country needs more immigrants and we should be out looking for immigrants.” In the same interview, he described building a border wall as “impractical” and said he doesn’t “like the look of it,” in contrast to Trump’s claim to be building a “beautiful” one. He later vowed to stop its construction if elected president.
  • Bloomberg has pledged to protect the status of DACA and TPS holders as well as raising the refugee admissions target to 125,000 people annually.
  • He proposes creating two new visa systems: a place-based visa program that would allow “localities to address unmet economic and social needs” and a start-up visa program for entrepreneurs. 
  • As for his track record on the issue, Bloomberg cites his decade as mayor of New York City, during which he enacted a series of programs and policies aimed at protecting and immigrants as well as his creation of New American Economy, a pro-immigration research and advocacy organization.

Pete Buttigieg

  • The former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, supports creating a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants along with those under DACA and TPS protections. 
  • Buttigieg proposes to reform current visa rules, including making temporary work visas dependent on industry needs instead of specific employers and creating a local Community Renewal Visa meant for communities in need of economic development.
  • Buttigieg would end Remain in Mexico and the Trump administration’s Northern Triangle cooperative asylum agreements, which Buttigieg describes as a “third country transit ban.”
  • He supports fully restoring and increasing aid to Central America to specifically address gender-based violence, human trafficking, and coffee industries in the region.

John Delaney

  • The former congressman from Maryland, who has spoken against decriminalizing border crossings, supports enhancing border security, including expanding a physical barrier at the southern border.
  • Delaney would create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and DACA recipients, while increasing the refugee admissions minimum to at least 110,000 people per year. 

Tulsi Gabbard

Amy Klobuchar

  • The senior senator from Minnesota’s plan for her first 100 days as president includes an immigration reform that would create a pathway to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants and recipients of the DACA, Deferred Enforced Departure (DED), and TPS programs.
  • Klobuchar was the co-author of the 2019 Guaranteed Refugee Admission Ceiling Enhancement (GRACE) Act, which is currently in Senate limbo and would have set an annual refugee admissions minimum of at least 95,000 people. As a presidential candidate, she supports raising the annual refugee admissions minimum to 110,000.
  • While campaigning in Nevada ahead of the February 22 state caucus, Klobuchar stated that she no longer believes the United States should establish English as the national language. Back in 2007, the senator voted in favor of passing an English-language amendment that would have reversed then-President Bill Clinton’s executive order requiring all federal agencies to provide materials in languages other than English. 

Deval Patrick

Bernie Sanders

  • The senator from Vermont is also calling for an end to the Remain in Mexico program and the cooperative asylum agreements the Trump administration inked with Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. He then proposes to convene a hemispheric summit with the leaders of the Northern Triangle countries and Mexico to discuss the root causes of migration and how to address them. 
  • Sanders, in his second bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, would put a temporary halt on all deportations and decriminalize border crossings, instead making them a civil offense.
  • Sanders would establish a five-year path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants living in the United States. 
  • Sanders also supports extending legal protections for DACA and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) recipients and those who are eligible for the two programs, with the goal of ensuring that 85 percent of undocumented immigrants who have lived and worked in the United States for at least five years can stay without the threat of deportation. 
  • The senator would also extend TPS designations. In 2016, he called on then-President Barack Obama to stop deporting Central American immigrants fleeing violence in the region, saying they should instead be offered TPS. 

Tom Steyer

  • The billionaire hedge fund manager would decriminalize border crossings and push for a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients, pledging to use executive action to reinstate the program if necessary.
  • Steyer’s immigration reform plan includes legally protecting climate change refugees

Elizabeth Warren

  • The senior senator from Massachusetts supports the repeal of Section 1325 that criminalizes border crossings, proposing instead to focus deportations on those who hold criminal convictions or pose a threat to U.S. national security. 
  • Warren supports ending Remain in Mexico and reinstating DACA and TPS programs. Warren pledges to increase the number of young immigrants who are eligible for DACA by extending the program’s cutoff date, eliminating the application age requirement, and extending the “minor” designation to include anyone who was brought to the United States under the age of 18 instead of 15, as the current requirements mandate. 
  • Warren is committed to accepting up to 125,000 refugees within her first year as president and later ramping up that number to 175,000 by the end of her first term.
  • Warren supports expanding aid to the Northern Triangle countries and would commit an annual aid package of at least $1.5 billion intended to fund programs in the Western Hemisphere that would reduce violence, crime, and poverty.

Andrew Yang

  • While the former tech executive supports decriminalizing border crossings, he also supports increasing border security, particularly through technologies such as ground and aerial sensors and video towers along the U.S.-Mexico border. He said he’d support extending a physical barrier only if shown to be effective.
  • Known for his universal basic income proposal that would give every American $1,000 a month, Yang also wants to institute a new tier of “long-term permanent residency,” which would create an 18-year path to citizenship, allowing some immigrants to remain in the United States, work, and pay taxes while they wait to become citizens.