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Immigration and the 2020 Election: Where the Candidates Stand

U.S. News & World Report logo U.S. News & World Report 9/12/2019 Claire Hansen

Donald Trump © Getty Images Donald Trump When the Trump administration in August announced a new rule lifting restrictions on how long the government can detain migrant children, immigration advocates and critics blanched.

The Trump administration said it was a necessary step to curb the number of migrants appearing at the border and to enforce immigration policy. Critics called it cruel and unneeded.

It's a cycle that has repeated over and over again since President Donald Trump's election. His 2016 campaign was largely based on the promise that he would build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and since taking office, immigration has been Trump's signature issue. His administration has rolled out a laundry list of policies aimed at restricting and reforming immigration in the U.S., all of which have been enacted while Trump repeats divisive claims about immigrants themselves.

As the 2020 presidential race heats up, Trump shows no signs of backing off. Meanwhile, Democrats are united against his policy changes and eager to harness the public outrage sparked by some of Trump's most controversial policies, many of which involve the treatment of migrant children.

But while Trump's vision for immigration in the U.S. has been made clear, some Democratic candidates have not evangelized detailed policy proposals, and there's fractures within the party over more progessive ideas. As a whole, Democratic candidates have sought to position themselves as a moral opposites to Trump, backing protections for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and seeking changes to the way migrants are treated by immigration agencies.

Where the 2020 Democrats Stand on Immigration:

Sen. Michael Bennet

Was an architect of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform package that ultimately did not pass Congress. Supported enhanced border security, including a fence, in 2013. Supports a path to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Earlier this year, authored a proposal that would have given Trump $25 million for a border wall in exchange for protections for those young immigrants. Does not support decriminalizing illegal border crossing.

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Former Vice President Joe Biden

Supports a path to citizenship for children or young adults who came to the United States without legal status with their parents. Supports improving screening procedures along the border. Wants to address root causes causing migrants to flee Central American countries. Does not support decriminalizing illegal border crossing.

Sen. Cory Booker

Supports a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally and expanded protections for those brought to the country illegally as children and those with Temporary Protected Status. Says he would instruct immigration agencies to phase out contracts with private facilities for immigrant detention. Seeks to increase the refugee cap and do away with "metering" at the border – or limiting the numbers of immigrants who can seek asylum on any given day – and the Remain in Mexico policy, which sends asylum-seekers at the southern border to wait in Mexico for their immigration court dates.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock

Supports protections for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Supports increasing the number of immigration judges and allowing refugee applicants to apply from their home countries. Does not support decriminalizing illegal border crossing.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg

Supports decriminalizing illegal border crossing and paths to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally and for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Seeks to reinstate enforcement priorities that outline who immigration authorities should target for deportation.

Former HUD Secretary Julian Castro

Supports decriminalizing illegal border crossing and creating pathways to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and for immigrants in the country illegally. Wants to focus on expanding family-based immigration to reunite families through visas. Seeks to increase refugee admissions and allow all deported veterans back into the U.S. Supports ending most immigration detention and restructuring ICE. Would establish independent immigration courts and end metering and the Remain in Mexico policy and seek to address root causes fueling migration from Central America to the U.S.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio

Supports a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Has said "ICE's time has come and gone" in response to a question about whether Immigration and Customs Enforcement should be abolished. Supported giving immigrants in the country illegally driver's licenses in New York.

Former Rep. John Delaney

Supports paths to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and for immigrants in the country illegally. Does not support decriminalizing illegal border crossing. Supports increased border security measures, including a fence. Wants to raise the refugee cap and reform visa program for guest workers.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

Supports protections for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Says she would seek to address the root causes of migration to the U.S. Supports refugee resettlement in the U.S. Has expressed reservations about decriminalizing illegal border crossing.

Sen. Kamala Harris

Supports offering a path to citizenship for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and granting protections against deportation to some 6 million other immigrants in the country illegally, and said she would do so through executive action. Supports a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally and restoring and expanding Temporary Protected Status for certain immigrants in the U.S. Supports decriminalizing illegal border crossing.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar

Supports protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and a pathway to citizenship for immigrants already in the country illegally. Seeks to change some of the policies of ICE. Does not support decriminalizing illegal border crossing.

Miramar, Florida, Mayor Wayne Messam

Supports paths to citizenship immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and for immigrants in the country illegally.

Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke

Supports pathways to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Seeks to end metering at the border and the Trump administration's Remain in Mexico program. Supports increasing staff and judges in the immigration court system and making immigration courts independent. Supports protections and pathway to citizenship immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, and updated border security measures. Wants to create new, community-based visa category. Does not support decriminalizing illegal border crossing.

Rep. Tim Ryan

Supports protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Does not support decriminalizing illegal border crossing.

Sen. Bernie Sanders

Supports expanding DACA and granting legal status to immigrants brought to the country illegally as children, supports restructuring ICE and seeks to develop independent oversight of agencies under the Department of Homeland Security. Says U.S. should hire "hundreds of new judges" to expedite immigration proceedings. Supports path to citizenship for most immigrants in the country illegally. Supports decriminalizing illegal border crossing.

Former Rep. Joe Sestak

Supports path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Seeks to address the root causes of migration by restoring aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and establishing envoys to those countries. Supports broad border security measures. Says he would increase the number of visas for skilled immigrants.

Billionaire Philanthropist Tom Steyer

Previously donated $1 million to legal aid groups fighting deportation cases and said it was vital that immigrants have greater access to legal services. Supports a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren

Supports a pathway to citizenship for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and decriminalizing illegal border crossing. Seeks to reform ICE and other immigration agencies and to eliminate the use of private detention facilities. Says she would limit detention of immigrants by using monitoring tools. Seeks to establish independent immigration courts and do away with expedited removal orders. Would raise refugee cap and get rid of metering and the Remain in Mexico policy. Does not support building a border wall.

Author Marianne Williamson

Supports paths to citizenship for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and for all immigrants in the country illegally. Says she would reduce the number of migrants detained by immigration authorities and reform the asylum application process. Supports decriminalizing illegal border crossing.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang

Supports a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Supports protections for immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. Supports decriminalizing illegal border crossing. Says he would expand certain visa programs to allow highly skilled individuals to live in the U.S. and give students receiving a graduate degree a green card to remain in the country.

Why Immigration Matters in the 2020 Election

Immigration is an urgent issue: Under Trump, migrants have traveled to the southern U.S. border at levels not seen in over a decade. Unprecedented numbers of migrant families are arriving, overwhelming a system originally designed to deal mostly with single adults, and many migrants are requesting asylum, backing up a system that is already backlogged. Pictures of severely overcrowded conditions and government watchdog reports of poor care at detention facilities drew public ire earlier this year, fueling critics of Trump's policies.

Recent mass shootings also have immigration in the news. Democrats have pushed back forcefully against Trump's rhetoric and lobbied accusations of racism and xenophobia, most recently linking an anti-immigrant mass shooting to Trump.

In August, a gunman killed 22 people in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Before the rampage, the shooter uploaded a racist manifesto online, stating that he was targeting Mexicans. Some have tied language the gunman used in his screed to comments made by Trump.

It's also an increasingly important issue to voters. A Gallup survey conducted in June found that nearly a quarter of U.S. adults say immigration is the most important issue facing the country, the highest percentage that has said so since Gallup began asking people the question almost 30 years ago. Another poll, conducted by RealClearPolitics in May, found 15% of voters say immigration is the top issue facing America, topped only by health care and the economy.

And among Latinos, who are likely to be an important voting bloc, immigration is even more important. Trump's policies have caused the Republican Party to lose support from Latino voters, says Clarissa Martinez De Castro, deputy vice president of research, advocacy, and legislation at UnidosUS, a nonpartisan Latino advocacy group. According to polling from the group, immigration is the third-most important issue for Latino voters, significant because it has historically ranked much lower in priority among the electorate, Martinez de Castro says.

Nearly 8 in 10 Latino voters are frustrated with how Trump and allies treat immigrants and Latinos and are worried it's going to get worse, a June poll conducted by UnidosUS found.

It's a personal issue for many Latinos who have family members or friends affected by policy changes, says Martinex de Castro. But Latinos also see it as a civil rights issue, she says.

"When the issue goes toxic – it has been nothing but for probably 10 years at least – Latinos, regardless of immigration status, feel the brunt of the rhetoric," Martinez de Castro says. "There's increasing discrimination and hate crimes and being regarded as suspect in your own country."

It could spell particular trouble for Trump in states with a large Latino population, such as Arizona and Texas, which have already shifted decidedly left compared to past elections. Latinos are expected to be the biggest minority voting bloc in the 2020 race, data show.

Polling also shows that popular sentiment among the general electorate chafes against Trump's message, too.

Americans generally have a positive view of immigrants: More than 6 in 10 say immigrants strengthen the country because of their hard work and talents, though only 38% of Republicans agree, a Pew poll found. A separate survey from Gallup conducted last year found 75% of all adults view immigration, on the whole, as a good thing – a record high. And there's growing support among Americans for allowing Central American refugees into the U.S.

Though a solid majority of Americans say openness to people from all over is foundational to who the nation is, almost 60% of Republicans surveyed by Pew in June say American is too open and the country risks "losing our identity as a nation" – a number that has increased nearly 10 percentage points since 2017, suggesting that Trump's messages are indeed playing well with his base. Only about 1 in 10 Democrats say the same.

President Donald Trump on Immigration Policy

Trump's approach to legal and illegal immigration has been one of restriction. He "has gone to extraordinary limits in using every tool a president has in his or her arsenal to rein in on immigration," tools that other administrations "dared not use," says Muzaffar Chishti, director of the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute's office at New York University School of Law.

Among his first official acts was instituting what was widely described as a "Muslim ban" that restricted migration from a series of predominantly Muslim nations. After temporary versions of the restrictions were struck down in federal courts and the order itself was revised to include nations without a Muslim-majority population, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in June 2018 that the administration had the right to impose such a policy based on national security concerns.

In what is perhaps one of Trump's defining actions as president, his administration enacted a "zero tolerance" policy in 2018 for illegal crossings at the southern border. The effect of holding and criminally charging adult migrants was that thousands of migrant children, who were legally prohibited from being held in federal jails, were separated from their parents without an organized system in place for their reunification. It was struck down by a federal judge and rescinded by Trump, but for many migrant children affected, it was months before they were reunited with their parents. The policy was meant to deter other migrant families from coming to the U.S., officials said at the time.

The policy drew swift and forceful condemnation from those from across the political spectrum and was widely unpopular with voters. It has followed Trump ever since: Opponents hold up the rule as evidence of what they say is his abdication of morality.

Zero tolerance is just one policy in a long string of immigration changes made by the executive branch. Trump also shut down the government when Democratic lawmakers refused to fund his border wall and then declared a national emergency to secure the money. He threatened Mexico with tariffs over its immigration enforcement; sought to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; inked a so-called safe third country agreement with Guatemala, despite a ruling from the country's high court in opposition to the deal; created a policy under which migrants are sent to wait in Mexico as they await immigration court proceedings; and issued a near-total ban on asylum at the southern border, among many other actions.

The administration has also tried to reform legal immigration. A new "public charge" rule gives the government the ability to deny green cards or other immigration status changes to people that use or, in the eyes of authorities, are "likely" to use public benefits.

In addition, a Whie House plan would reform the current legal immigration system, favoring meritorious applicants over family-based immigration. That proposal has not, however, been introduced by lawmakers in Congress. Congress has not made any significant immigration reforms, leaving the Trump administration to act through executive orders and policy changes. Many of Trump's immigration policies have been challenged in court and some have been temporarily blocked by federal judges, with some expected to make their way to the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Trump's rhetoric on immigration has not softened, and he continues to depict immigrants as "invaders" who threaten to take American jobs. The message appeals to his base, and there's no evidence that Trump is going to step away from immigration as his signature issue this election, Chishti says.

"He thinks that he does not need to change his position on immigration, that he does not need to tone down either his rhetoric or the import of his policies because they worked out well for him and he is confident that they will work out for him again," Chishti says.

Copyright 2019 U.S. News & World Report

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