First published June 13, 2019; last updated January 16, 2020
The 2020 Democratic primary has in general not been marked by major policy differences, and immigration is no exception. On immigration, the candidates’ plans are in near-consensus, with differences found only in degree and emphasis. Each plan recognizes the urgent need to create a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants who are already here and deeply woven into our communities. And each plan wants to create an immigration system for new immigrants that is fair, just, and humane — a stark contrast to the policies of the current Administration.
In the last three years, the Trump Administration has waged a war against immigrants, favoring policies that continually increase the chaos and cruelty of our broken system. It has become clear that Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign will use extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric with the hopes of dividing and distracting voters. This has become his go-to strategy despite its track record of failure and its serious connection to real-life violence.
Gallup and other polls, however, found that a record-high 76 percent of Americans say that immigration is a good thing. The Democratic presidential candidates are siding with this clear majority by talking about common-sense immigration legislation they would support and executive actions they would push forward. Joe Biden, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Tom Steyer have all released detailed immigration plans, while Amy Klobuchar has highlighted actions she would take on immigration in her first 100 days.
Below we have highlighted some of the candidates’ shared calls for reform and the differences between their plans.
Shared calls for reform
Beyond calling for a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., all the candidates have said they would immediately reinstate protections for DACA, TPS, and DED recipients.
Plans from Biden, Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, and Steyer all contained strong criticisms for the Trump Administration’s policies and named numerous policies they quickly reverse. Their plans would immediately end the Muslim and refugee ban; family separation at the border; the practice of deporting veterans; “metering,” which slows the asylum process for migrants at the border; and the disastrous “Remain in Mexico” policy, that has trapped tens of thousands of asylum seekers in dangerous conditions. They would re-allow asylum claims based on domestic and gang violence — which was established practice before the Trump Administration changed the rule — and establish strong protections for LGBTQ+ asylum seekers.
In addition to reversing Trump Administration policies, the candidates called for practical reforms such as the end of for-profit immigration detention and the prioritization of alternatives to detention like the Family Case Management Program. They pushed for accountability and reforms for CBP and ICE, including ending immigration raids at or near sensitive locations. The candidates also opposed Trump’s border wall and instead called for smart tech and infrastructure improvements at our ports of entry.
Their plans also include a range of much-needed reforms to the immigration court system. They all want to expand and accelerate family-based immigration and increase and protect other visa classifications. After the historic reduction in the number of refugees allowed in under the Trump Administration, all the plans call for a return to previous U.S. levels. And each plan contains a commitment to expand regional partnerships in order to address push factors (such as gangs and corruption), and in-country refugee applications to stem the necessity for dangerous migration travels.
“It is a moral failing and a national shame when a father and his baby daughter drown seeking our shores. . . When President Trump uses family separation as a weapon against desperate mothers, fathers, and children seeking safety and a better life. When he threatens massive raids that would break up families who have been in this country for years and targets people at sensitive locations like hospitals and schools. When children die while in custody due to lack of adequate care.”
While all the 2020 Democrats call for strengthening regional partnerships to address the root causes of forced migration, Biden, in addition, has a four-year, $4 billion assistance package for the region, tied to accountability and progress measures.
Biden’s plan calls for the end of the so-called national emergency that Trump declared in February 2019 to divert money from military projects to his wall. And like Sanders and Buttigieg, Biden wants to terminate the “safe third-country” agreements that undercut much of our asylum procedures. Biden’s plan would also reinstate the Central American Minors program, which allowed minors to apply for refugee status in their home countries without having to make the dangerous journey north on their own. Trump got rid of the program; Warren and Buttigieg have also mentioned they would restart it.
In terms of enforcement, Biden’s plan would prioritize enforcement resources in a way that removes “threats to national security and public safety, not families.” The plan also calls for transparency and independent oversight over ICE and CBP — and the repeal of “extreme, anti-immigrant state laws that have a chilling effect on the ability of immigrant domestic violence, sexual assault survivors, and other victims of crimes to seek safety and justice.”
Biden’s plan calls for doubling the number of immigration judges, court staff, and interpreters, in order to address long waits in immigration court. And it would “surge humanitarian resources to the border,” including more asylum officers, in order to more quickly hear claims and reduce wait times.
Biden’s and Sanders’ plans both give a considerable amount of detail to the protections that they would extend to workers. Both of their plans would end mass workplace raids, which have become a hallmark of the Trump Administration. They would push for the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights and the Protecting Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act, which would expand U-visas to undocumented immigrants who report workplace violations. Additionally, the plan calls for tripling the current cap on U-visas to 30,000.
Biden’s plan would streamline and improve the naturalization process, where wait times have doubled since Trump took office. His plan would expand employment-based visas, tie them to macroeconomic factors, and extend green cards to foreign graduates of U.S. doctoral programs. His plan also supports legislation that would provide legal status based on agricultural work history, and a faster track to a green card and ultimately citizenship. It calls for a refugee admissions cap of 125,000 and a revitalization of Task Force on New Americans “to provide community support across a range of issues, including language learning, entrepreneurship, and financial management, workforce training, and guidance on the naturalization process.”
“He [Donald Trump] has tried, as all demagogues do, to divide us by demonizing immigrants and blaming them for society’s problems. He has used hateful and disgusting rhetoric to try to dehumanize an entire group of people, and he has used the power of the federal government to mistreat and terrorize immigrants at the border and in our communities. We must stand together with our immigrant friends and neighbors and stand up to President Trump’s xenophobic words and actions.”
A signature detail of Sanders’ plan involves his call for a “moratorium on deportations until a thorough audit of past practices and policies is complete.” Sanders’ plan would also make undocumented status a civil matter, rather than a crime as the Trump Administration has done. The plan also for the repeal of the three- and ten-year bars, and the end of expedited removal.
Like most of the other plans, Sanders wants to rescind the Trump Administration’s efforts to change the “public charge” rule. His plan would also drop any litigation or funding restrictions relating to so-called “sanctuary cities”, and rescind proposed regulations that deny public housing to families with undocumented members. And like Buttigieg, Sanders’s plan not only calls for the removal of the Muslim ban but calls on Congress to pass the National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants (NO BAN) Act.
The plan outlines the use of executive authority to “allow undocumented immigrants who have resided in the United States for five or more years to stay here free from the threat of deportation”, with legal status being offered to Dreamers with DACA, TPS recipients, and parents of legal permanent residents. His plan would also create a new program for migrants displaced by climate change, “accepting at least 50,000 climate migrants in his first year in office.”
Sanders’ plan would break up CBP and ICE and redistribute their functions explicitly, highlighting recent abuses such as the use of “hieleras” (the freezing cold conditions found in detention centers). The plan would also eliminate the “Constitution-free zone” within 100 miles of the border, and end the 287(g) program and “other programs that turn local law enforcement into immigration officers.” As Sanders writes in his plan, the U.S. “must decouple local law enforcement and immigration, leaving the proper authorities to carry out their respective missions.”
His reforms to the court would include restoring case-by-case discretion for immigration judges, making immigration courts independent by removing them from the control of the Department of Justice, creating “due process for immigrants, including the right to counsel and an end to cash bail”, ensuring access to translation and interpretation services throughout every stage of the legal process, and ending the use of impersonal video conferencing sentences for immigration cases.
Sanders’ plan, like Biden’s, emphasizes supporting workers no matter their immigration status. Additionally, Sanders’ plan calls for “at least a $15 minimum wage and overtime pay for agricultural workers and remove farmworker exemptions from the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.”
“Immigrants have always been a vital source of American strength. They grow our economy and make our communities richer and more diverse. They are our neighbors, our colleagues, and our friends — and every bit as much a part of America as those who were born in the United States.”
Warren’s plan would decriminalize migration, making unauthorized crossing a civil violation in order to refocus enforcement on dangerous criminal activity. Like Sanders, her program would also terminate the three- and ten-year immigration bans for immigrants.
Warren calls for reforms at ICE and CBP, which would “reshape” them “from top to bottom,” adding transparency and “independent internal watchdogs to prevent future abuses.” She also makes explicit that “if you are violating the basic rights of immigrants, now or in the future, a Warren administration will hold you accountable.” Her plan also would repeal 287(g) agreements.
Notably, while planning to reduce detentions dramatically, Warren’s plan outlines standards that would ensure medical care for migrants and end the use of solitary confinement in every detention facility.
The plan would create an independent immigration court system, end expedited removals, and create a nationwide immigration public defender corps to provide access to counsel for migrants facing immigration court.
Warren, like the other candidates, has called for increasing refugee resettlement, raising the cap to “125,000 refugees in my first year, and ramping up to at least 175,000 refugees per year by the end of my first term.” And she wants to expand legal pathways for immigrants by expanding family reunification, reducing application complexity, reducing administrative backlogs, limiting the possible penalties considered for status determinations, and creating an “Office of New Americans dedicated to supporting new immigrants as they transition into our society.”
Warren notes in her plan that “we should empower workers, not employers, by coupling any expansion of legal immigration with real accountability on employers who break the rules, exploit workers, or don’t adhere to basic labor standards.”
Warren’s regional plan includes at least $1.5 billion annually in aid to Central America, targeting crime, poverty, and sexual violence while enhancing programs for at-risk youth. Warren’s plan also would coordinate with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to help resettle children and families who need protection while providing information about the right to seek asylum in the U.S.
“We get to choose what kind of country we live in—that is the foundation of American democracy. We can continue to cause pain and suffering to families and communities, and to hurt our economy in the process. Or we can choose to protect and protest on behalf of our community members.”
Buttigieg’s plan details numerous visa reforms, calling for the restoration of the H-1C visa (for nurses), authorizing H-4 visa holders (the spouses or children of H1 visa holders) to work, abolishing annual caps on U-visas, reforming the special immigrant visa process for Afghan and Iraqi partners, and expanding employment-based visas each year based on need. His plan also calls for the creation of a new local Community Renewal (CR) visa where eligible communities could request immigrants with experience in different fields as needed in their communities.
Like Sanders and Biden, Buttigieg’s plan would end workplace raids, allow U-visas for victims of labor and employment law violations, and support the Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights.
Buttigieg’s plan would “keep naturalization affordable and ensure that fee waivers are available to those unable to pay”, and expand access to ESL courses. And like Warren, Buttigieg would create a National Office of New Americans. He would also encourage states to reduce barriers for immigrants accessing occupational and drivers licenses.
Buttigieg’s plan, like others, would fight back against Trump’s proposed changes to the “public charge” and attempts to ban the undocumented from public housing. Like Sanders’ plan, it would end 287(g) agreements and threats to withhold federal funding to so-called sanctuary cities.
Like Biden, Buttigieg would reinstate immigration enforcement priorities, focusing only on those who present a real threat. And like Sanders and Warren, he would eliminate the three- and ten-year bars.
Buttigieg would reform immigration courts by establishing “immigration specialists within public defender offices,” supporting the right to counsel for people in deportation proceedings, and making the immigration court system independent. He also wants to shift responsibility for migrant processing centers to HHS officials who will be “trained in health, trauma-informed and age-appropriate care, and emergency aid.” And migrants “will not be subject to a comprehensive screening until they have had time to recover from their journeys and have accessed ‘Know Your Rights’ information and counsel.”
“Our immigration system no longer reflects our best values. From the Muslim travel ban to the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), from escalating Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids to the proliferation of squalid camps at the southern border, the Trump Administration is committing unconscionable acts by systematically attacking immigrant communities of color. They have wrenched babies from their mothers’ arms and left children to die in cages from the common flu.”
Steyer has put the climate crisis at the center of his campaign, and because of this, would create new visa categories “to ensure persons fleeing from climate-related disasters and conflicts are eligible for legal entry to the United States .” But his plan also supports the Veterans Visa and Protection Act, streamlines the H-1B visa application process, grants H-1B spouses the ability to work, and supports the Farm Workforce Modernization Act.
Steyer’s plan would also reform ICE, CBP, and USCIS and have a “zero tolerance policy for hateful acts by those wearing the uniform.”
Like Sanders and Warren, Steyer’s plan would decriminalize border crossings and will process those violations as a civil matter, not a criminal one. Steyer’s plan would also eliminate the 287(g) program and end Trump Administration’s efforts to make draconian changes to the “public charge” rule.
And like Warren and Buttigieg, Steyer would launch a national Office of New Americans.
Steyer would also reform immigration courts by creating the right to legal counsel in immigration proceedings and removing the court from the control of the Department of Justice, making it more independent.
Klobuchar said that in her first 100 days in office, she would “jump-start legislative negotiations for comprehensive immigration reform with the stated goal of passing it in the first year.”