Democratic candidates are failing to confront the key issue on immigration

So many plans.
So many plans.
Image: Reuters/Lucas Jackson
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After two rounds of Democratic primary debates, you’d think the most urgent immigration question facing the country is whether or not the US should consider crossing the border illegally a crime.

That question, which came up again during tonight’s face-off, goes to the heart of most candidates’ strategies for defending immigrants from US president Donald Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. It doesn’t, however, address the country’s most pressing immigration problem: the crisis at the US-Mexico border.

Trump’s efforts to prevent immigrants from requesting asylum, a right they have under US and international law, has resulted in overcrowded facilities, the spread of infectious diseases, long-lasting trauma for immigrant kids, and several deaths.

Most of the Democratic candidates have focused on stopping those abuses. But only a few go into what it would take to reduce the processing bottlenecks that have led to the dismal conditions at detention centers in the first place, or the irregular border traffic that puts Trump and his supporters on edge. 

We looked at the candidates’ platforms to review how they propose solving the problem. They get closer than the debates at addressing the issue, but still fall short, according to immigration experts.

Asylum crisis

The Trump administration has done little to address the crux of the problem at the border: the changing profile of immigrants. These days most migrants are not trying to sneak into the US to work. They’re trying to get asylum, a lengthy, bureaucratic process that can take years. During that time, immigrants are often released—which actually encourages others back home to come, further clogging the system.

That creates two problems. People who are eligible for protection have to wait a long time to receive it. And people who don’t qualify get to stay for months, or even years.

Instead of bolstering the asylum system so it could more quickly weed out undeserving cases, Trump has doubled down on the kind of policies previous administrations used to intercept and deport border crossers, like sending troops to the border.

It’s unclear how some of the Democratic proposals would fix the asylum problem. Eliminating the law that makes entering the country illegally a crime, Section 1325, wouldn’t ease the backlogs in immigration court, and it wouldn’t stop family separation. Some candidates claim, correctly, that the Trump administration used the law to separate immigrants from their children. But Trump rolled back that policy last year after public outcry. A federal judge later ordered the government to stop the practice unless parents posed a danger to their children. The Department of Homeland Security is now using that exception to continue family separation, something abolishing Section 1325 wouldn’t prevent.

“The problem is not the provision in the law,” said Muzaffar Chishti, an immigration expert with the Migration Policy Institute (MPI.) “The problem is not exercising discretion when exercising the law. That nuance gets lost.”

Several Democratic candidates have identified the asylum system problem, but most just mention it briefly in their platforms. South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg’s issue page, for example, just says that he wants to end immigration and asylum backlogs. (The whole immigration section on his website is about 200 words.) A handful of other candidates, including former Colorado governor John Hickenlooper and political newcomer Andrew Yang, have a line about it as well.

Motivational speaker Marianne Williamson, Montana governor Steve Bullock, and former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro are a bit more specific. They all want to increase the number of immigration judges. New Jersey senator Cory Booker wants to revert Trump policies that set quotas for immigration judges, and Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren wants to make the immigration court system, which now is part of the Justice Department, more independent. 

Former US representative Beto O’Rourke from El Paso, Texas perhaps devotes the most space to addressing the asylum system’s problems. The only candidate from a border community, he wants to revert legal precedent set by former attorney general Jeff Sessions to limit asylum eligibility. He wants to increase not only the number of judges, but of clerks, interpreters and other court staff. He wants to streamline the asylum process so that asylum officers can issue decisions instead of referring every single case to immigration courts. 

Work visas

Another approach to the border crisis would be to offer alternatives to asylum. In addition to violence, poverty and lack of opportunity are among the top reasons people are leaving Central America. But the US work visa program is too restrictive, says David Bier, an immigration policy analyst at the Cato Institute. “That’s why we have the crisis,” he said.

To solve it, the US needs to tie its border policy to its work visa policy. More legal workers would mean fewer undocumented immigrants. That would help prevent the deaths and mistreatment Democratic candidates are railing against, and save taxpayer dollars now pouring into immigrant detention, Bier said.

Most Democrats are not making this connection between the border crisis and work visas, but some are calling for expanding legal paths for immigrants to come to the US. Warren is calling for “targeted immigration” to fill positions American workers don’t want. Castro, meanwhile, wants to do away with per-country limits for all visas. Former US representative John Delaney, from Maryland, simply says he wants to “reform the visa program for guest workers.”

Washington governor Jay Inslee, meanwhile, has a slew of proposals on how to improve the visa program, ranging from tying visa caps to labor markets to creating a task force of farmers and farm workers to come up with a better way to manage guest worker visas.

O’Rourke, too, has a plan for work visas, which includes allowing entrepreneurs and patent holders to stay, among other measures.

None of them, however, get too deep into the details.

Aid to Central America

Another strategy to stop the chaos at the border is to address the causes that are driving people to flee their countries. The US could help Central America tackle the corruption, impunity, and inequality that makes it so hard for immigrants to stay.

The Trump administration has done the opposite, reducing aid to Central America. Most Democratic candidates want to restore it. Former vice president Joe Biden, whose immigration platform doesn’t have any concrete details about the asylum system, underscores the need to attack the problem at its origin.

“As vice president, I led a major, bipartisan effort to address the root causes that push people to flee, relieving pressure on our border by improving security, reducing inequality and expanding economic opportunity in Central America so that people feel safe to stay in their home countries,” he wrote in a Miami Herald op-ed outlining his ideas on immigration. “We were making progress until President Trump replaced sound strategy with hostility and inflammatory rhetoric.”

Castro goes as far as proposing a “21st century Marshall plan for Central America.”

What about enforcement?

The common thread in most of the candidates’ platforms so far is their lack of emphasis on enforcement. Some are actually calling to scale it back. Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whose immigration platform is spelled out in a few bullet points on his website, wants to “dismantle cruel and inhumane deportation programs and detention centers.”

However, he doesn’t say what should replace them.

“It’s as if the only problem here is not providing protections to the people who are seeking asylum, not recognizing that at the end of the day, not everyone is going to be eligible for asylum and therefore we have to have a mechanism to remove people,” said MPI’s Chishti.

That might not make for a good soundbite in an era in which the government is housing immigrants under overpasses and denying toothbrushes and soap to children. But until Democrats address the roots of the asylum system problem, their ideas won’t make for very good immigration strategies either.