Senator Bernie Sanders’s immigration plan, released on Thursday, is one of the boldest immigration plans any major politician has put forward in years, and comes amid a campaign season that has seen a major shift to the left among Democratic candidates on immigration. With calls for a total moratorium on deportations, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and providing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, the plan serves as a road map for what a fair and just immigration policy can be. Most strikingly, it represents a shift in some of Sanders’s past positions on immigration, making it as much a reflection of an increasingly powerful and coherent pro-immigrant movement as it is of the senator’s own changing stance on the issues.
For decades the standard line of US immigration policy has been to hound, prosecute, cage, and deport migrants, without giving a second thought to the root economic and social causes of migration. Republicans have been outright racist and xenophobic, and Democrats have typically been little better, caving to the status quo of a militarized border and trying to build political capital—toward passage of a spectral omnibus immigration reform package—by ramping up the deportation machine. Washington’s focus on border security and immigration enforcement have allowed ICE, Customs and Border Protection, and the Department of Homeland Security to grow into the ravenous monsters they have become. Sanders’s plan goes against all this history to focus on justice for immigrants, and then successfully shows how immigration relates to his signature issues of labor and universal medical care in a way that no other candidate has yet been able to muster.
These are not only changes in the way politicians typically discuss immigration but also shifts in emphasis for Sanders himself, as the senator’s track record when it comes to immigration policy is a complicated one. Sanders was praised in 2016, for example, by Iowa Representative Steve King (who trades in the kind of vile anti-immigrant rhetoric celebrated by white nationalists) for his stance on protecting specifically American workers. And Sanders voted against a 2007 comprehensive immigration reform bill that would have greatly expanded the guest worker program and provided a pathway to citizenship (though a long and rocky pathway) for 12 million people. The 2007 bill was hailed as a breakthrough by many mainstream immigrant rights groups, despite the fact that it also included provisions for around 300 miles of wall construction. Sanders was correct to worry that those guest workers would have been dangerously exploited, and that tying legalization to border militarization was a devilish concession. And yet, six years later, Sanders voted for a similar bill, though without the same expansions to the guest worker program. That 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill would have expanded immigration enforcement and border militarization to unprecedented levels, turning the US-Mexico border into an even more hyper-surveilled site of paramilitary occupation. More recently, this past February, Sanders seemed to hold his nose and vote for a Consolidated Appropriations Act, which provided $1.375 billion for the construction of more wall in South Texas.
I asked Sanders’s senior campaign adviser Chuck Rocha what had moved Sanders to embrace policies he had shied away from in the past, and he told me, simply, that the senator has been listening. “Traveling around the country and listening to these young people is how Bernie really made this connection,” Rocha said, and added, “This is a policy written by a group of immigrants.”
So the Bernie campaign’s 2019 plan can be seen as an attempt to reset the terms of the debate by explicitly decoupling draconian immigration enforcement from paths to legalization.
The plan includes a lengthy “Day One” heading that, recognizing the difficulty of getting immigration legislation through Congress, makes liberal use of executive action. Perhaps the boldest concrete proposal, listed under the “Day One” section, would be a complete halt to all deportations “until a thorough audit of current and past practices and policies is complete.” For anyone who knows the history of deportations—from the 3 million deported under Obama to the million or so US citizens deported in the 1930s—such an audit wouldn’t be quick work.
Other “Day One” moves include halting construction of the wall, rescinding the Muslim ban, reuniting children separated from their families, and convening a hemispheric summit with Latin American leaders whose countries are experiencing migration crises. Day One basically reads like a progressive immigration wish list.
Blanca Estevez, a member of the National Political Committee of DSA, a political refugee from El Salvador, and part of a “mixed status” family, told me she was “very, very, very excited,” calling the deportation moratorium “life-changing.”
Besides the concrete proposals, the plan also marks some notable shifts in Democratic thinking about immigration. The plan calls the wall, for example, not only ineffective but also “racist,” and cites the fact that while “black immigrants make up 5 percent of the undocumented population,” they “account for 20 percent of those facing removal on criminal grounds.” The plan also makes clear that “immigration is not a threat to national security.” These two seemingly simple points are fundamental pivots from the way the overwhelming majority of politicians have long framed immigration. In the first instance, racism has been the underlying motivator of immigration policy since the first federal immigration laws, passed in 1875, specifically prohibited Chinese women from entering the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration Act of 1924, Operation Wetback, Operation Liberty Shield, and the Muslim ban, to name just a few of many policies that have explicitly targeted people based on their race, have set the tone for immigration policy for a century and a half. Shifting the focus of immigration policy away from “homeland security” and acknowledging the racist past and present is, as Estevez put it, a “monumental” step.
Recognizing that immigration will be a key issue in the 2020 election—especially as Trump continues to fan nativist sentiment—most other Democratic candidates have released plans of their own. Former vice president Joe Biden is one notable exception. Former Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro was the first candidate to release an immigration plan, calling for a path to citizenship, though without a proposed timeline. Castro’s plan is also valuable for including his signature issue, the decriminalizing of border crossings—repealing Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act—which has pushed the field of Democratic candidates to the left. Senator Elizabeth Warren, meanwhile, also calling for decriminalizing border crossings and a pathway to legalization (like Castro, without a timeline), has proposed establishing an Office of New Americans, which would “provide English, civics, and employment-focused classes and training.”
And while Warren calls to “remake CBP and ICE in a way that reflects our values,” Sanders would go further, reorganizing the agencies by dismantling ICE and transferring “deportation, enforcement, border and investigatory authority” back into the Department of Justice, which was the parent department of both agencies pre-9/11. This is a huge leap from his own 2016 plan, which sought more “accountability” for the Border Patrol, as well as the use of body cameras for agents, and did not mention abolishing ICE. Julián Castro, meanwhile, in his plan wants to break ICE into two separate agencies and do a thorough investigation of its role in family separation. All of these proposals are further to the left than the proposals from Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders from 2016.
But labor, more than immigration, remains Sanders’s strong suit, and the new plan performs a necessary service by emphasizing how the two issues cannot be untangled. Bernie’s immigration plan—in a way that other immigration plans have long been blind to—focuses on working conditions and labor protections for all workers in the United States, regardless of status. He calls, for example, for including agricultural workers in the National Labor Relations Act (they are currently excluded from the 1935 law that protects workers’ organizing efforts) as well as for a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Both platforms would include a guaranteed minimum wage of $15 an hour, as well as the establishment of a whistle-blower visa to protect immigrant workers who call foul on employer violations. The plan also accurately calls guest workers a “captive workforce,” and notes that the country spends “more than eleven times as much enforcing immigration as we do enforcing labor standards.”
The strength of Sanders’s plan is in acknowledging that immigration cannot be compartmentalized. Sanders doesn’t tie immigration just to labor but also to foreign policy—he explicitly mentions US intervention and NAFTA as drivers of migration—and climate change. Sanders proposes setting a floor of “accepting at least 50,000 climate migrants in his first year in office.” That would not only establish an entirely new category of refugees; it would also raise the current ceiling of refugee admittances by over 30,000. At its current ceiling of 18,000, the Trump administration is accepting the fewest refugees since the US program was established.
Implementation, however, is the first and often the highest hurdle to any sort of plan. While Sanders hopes to “push Congress, immediately” to pass legislation outlining a five-year pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, with priority status for young people, the words “immediately” and “Congress” hardly belong in the same sentence today—especially when discussing immigration. Various iterations of the Dream Act—giving protection or status to Dreamers—have been kicked around for almost two decades without making their way through Congress (Obama implemented protections for Dreamers through executive action, which left those protections vulnerable for Trump’s own executive action once he came into office). But recognizing the urgency is also part of what will get any plan over that hurdle.
One notable phrase missing from the plan is “open borders,” which has been, along with the hashtag #AbolishICE, gaining increasing acceptance in the past few years on the left. I asked Chuck Rocha if the campaign wanted to put daylight between their plan and “open borders.” Rocha responded, “We want to stop putting daylight between mothers and their babies.”
When I pressed the issue, he leaned on the fact that the plan was written by Latinx activists working with the campaign, many of whom, such as himself, have backgrounds in immigration activism. Those former activists and current campaign staff, Rocha told me, have worked “to put the human factor back into immigration politics.”
Given the state of immigration policies today, that itself is a radical proposal.