Even as President Trump continues to make restricting immigration a centerpiece of his re-election campaign, his opponent, Joe Biden, is committing more deeply to an ambitious program that would unwind most of Trump’s policies and revamp the immigration system.
A task force assigned to find common ground on immigration between Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., broadly endorsed Biden’s plans to offer citizenship to undocumented immigrants, including those who came here as children. The task force proposals stopped short of calling explicitly for de-funding or abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE. And they provided more detail and urgency to Biden’s plans to roll back Trump’s near-shutdown of the border with Mexico and reverse his dismantling of the asylum system. Citing the coronavirus pandemic, the task force urged Biden to significantly expand access to health care for all immigrants, regardless of their legal status.
The group also forcefully supported ending private companies’ involvement in immigration detention.
The task force was spurred by political reality. Latinx voters, who are most likely to cite immigration as a top issue, turned out in big numbers for Sanders in California, Colorado and Nevada, three states he won in the primary. If their participation is low in November, it could hurt Biden in several battleground states, particularly Arizona.
Immigrant advocates have been frustrated that Biden was slow to acknowledge the cloud over his campaign from President Barack Obama’s immigration record, which included more than 3 million deportations.
The recommendations announced Wednesday by the eight-member Unity Task Force move Biden away from a strategy of promoting sweeping legislation, known as comprehensive immigration reform, which combined a pathway to citizenship for more than 10 million undocumented immigrants with big increases in funding for border enforcement. That strategy, designed to attract Republican votes, repeatedly failed to bring enough of those votes to pass Congress.
The task force strongly endorsed Biden’s plan to pass a “roadmap to citizenship” for undocumented immigrants and a separate bill with a fast-track to citizenship for immigrants who came here as children. But there is no mention of border funding as part of those packages.
The proposals shied away from a key demand of many Sanders supporters: abolishing or de-funding ICE. These demands intensified after Trump’s family separations at the border in 2018 and in recent street protests against police brutality.
Instead, the task force urged Biden to use a previously-promised 100-day moratorium on deportations to conduct a “full-scale study” to produce recommendations for “transforming enforcement policies and practices” at ICE and the border agencies. The Biden campaign originally released an extensive immigration plan in December.
The task force did not recommend the outright repeal of laws that make it a low-level federal crime to cross the border without documents. A repeal proposal by Julián Castro during his presidential run led to accusations from Republicans that Democrats were pushing for open borders.
Rather, the group called for an end to programs that have used those statutes to carry out mass criminal prosecutions of illegal border crossers. Some of those programs date back to the Obama administration, but the most notorious one was Trump’s zero tolerance policy that led to the separation of migrant families.
The unity task force also proposed a new fast-track process for legal visas and citizenship for workers deemed essential, particularly health-care workers and farm laborers—people who have been disproportionately stricken by COVID-19.
“This is about immigrants as people, as an important constituency in our country,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center and a co-chair of the task force along with Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democrat from California. Hincapie was named by Sanders to the panel. She said the “big shift” was abandoning the longtime linkage of immigration legalization with enforcement.
The recommendations for pathways to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants “should be at the center of any federal solution to our immigration system and the damage it’s done,” said Javier H. Valdés, co-executive director of Make the Road Action, an immigrant organization in New York, who was also named to the task force by Sanders. But he said, “We do not believe that such a pathway to citizenship should be attached to more harmful enforcement policies, a mistake by some Democrats in previous legislative efforts.”
Here are other points from the immigration task force that reinforced or went beyond what Biden had proposed in his earlier plan:
Calling for an end to an agreement with Mexico that allows the Department of Homeland Security to return migrants to Mexican border cities to await their proceedings in immigration court.
Asking Congress to repeal laws that prohibit deportees from returning legally to the United States for as long as 10 years after they are expelled.
Canceling agreements with Central American countries that allowed the Trump administration to force migrants seeking asylum in the United States to ask instead for refuge in those places. Revive and expand regional programs to provide development aid to struggling countries in Central America and allow refugees to apply for U.S. protection from their home nations.
Reforming immigration courts, including the possibility of transforming them into an independent agency, separate from the Justice Department.
Ending a Trump administration measure, known as the public charge rule, which punishes immigrants seeking to become legal permanent residents if they have used certain government assistance programs, and repealing the underlying law entirely.
Including immigrants in health-care plans by cancelling the current five-year wait time for legal permanent residents to participate in public health programs; allowing young immigrants in a protection program, known as DACA, to have public health insurance; and allowing undocumented immigrants to purchase insurance on the Affordable Care Act exchanges. Those moves would reverse Obama-era policies.