LAS VEGAS — On Thursday, Bernie Sanders' campaign reversed one part of his immigration platform: a blanket moratorium on deportations pending a policy audit.
Instead, Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir argued that the while the moratorium on deportations “would affect 99% of the people living here,” it would not be absolute. The moratorium, he said, would not apply to “violent criminals” and that some people serving time in prison would have a deportation decided “on a case by case basis.”
That hews closer to what other Democratic candidates have said: They will not commit to a moratorium on deporting immigrants with criminal records, especially those convicted of a violent crime.
Sanders’ promise of a blanket moratorium has won praise from immigration activist groups and was part of the reason several endorsed the senator over other candidates recently. Two major immigration groups said they understood a "moratorium" to mean a ban on deportations, with no exceptions.
Shakir made the remark at an immigration forum, which was cohosted by Amnesty International and BuzzFeed News in Las Vegas ahead of the Nevada caucus, in an interview with BuzzFeed News’ Hamed Aleaziz.
“Sen. Sanders has said that he would institute a moratorium on deportations if he is elected,” Aleaziz had asked Shakir. “You know, while ICE deports many people without a criminal record, there are a portion of those deported with serious criminal issues. In the past two months, ICE has deported those who are convicted of double murder, accessory to murder, and others who are wanted for murder in their home countries. Would Sen. Sanders extend the moratorium to these individuals? And if so how long is this moratorium going to last?”
“We're talking about violent criminal — violent criminals sit in jail or prison right now, upon their, the end of whatever sentence they may currently have, they would be deported,” Shakir said.
“Now that's a tiny number, right?” he continued. “A tiny number of people on a case by case basis that would be outside of the moratorium. The moratorium would affect 99% of the people living here peacefully and contributing to America's economy.”
“So it sounds like the moratorium is not just a broad moratorium for all deportations?” Aleaziz followed up.
“No, it starts with a broad moratorium. Yeah. It starts with a broad wholescale full sweep moratorium, acknowledging that there's going to be case by cases that may need to be dealt with differently,” Shakir said.
The Sanders campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Sanders' written immigration plan does not make mention of exceptions to the moratorium: It says he would "institute a moratorium on deportations until a thorough audit of past practices and policies is complete." His approach to immigration detention, on the other hand, does make it clear that he would look to end detention for all immigrants except those convicted of violent crimes.
In January, Sanders first indicated that there were in fact a few exceptions; when he was asked about his position on deportations, he said, "If someone has been convicted of a terrible, terrible crime, that might be an exception to the rule. A moratorium on 99% of deportations is nothing to sniff at, and I think the undocumented community would be very proud of that."
Advocates say that it is a significant departure from a complete moratorium, even if the policy only excludes people serving time for violent crimes, because a moratorium means a complete halt. This version, they argue, continues a policy of persecuting people based on their immigration status.
The shift now places this part of Sanders’ immigration policy further to the right than Biden — the former vice president agreed to a full, 100-day moratorium on deportations after going back and forth and finally being pressured by Latino Victory Fund, a group that endorsed Biden last week and said they had understood that Biden would commit to the policy, despite his campaign’s initial denials.
National immigration groups who have endorsed Sanders recently told BuzzFeed News they understood Sanders’ moratorium to mean a full and complete stop to all deportations, at least for a limited period of time.
“Of course we want a moratorium that is 100% covering everyone. That is the policy that we understand as his public commitment and that’s why we endorsed him,” said Ana Maria Archila, executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy.
“When he talks about the moratorium on deportations, it’s presenting such a departure from anything that my community has experienced under either Republican or Democratic administrations. A moratorium would allow my community to breathe,” she said.
Archila said the group still sees Sanders’ immigration platform as being the most inclusive across the board, because “he has been the only one to be brave enough, courageous enough, to talk about the inclusion of immigrants in all of the plans that he envisions. When he talks about health care, he says health care for all including undocumented immigrants, when he talks about free college, he says including immigrant children who currently don’t have access.”
But, she added, she does not agree with framing the issue in terms of some immigrants deserving more protection than others — “I want the campaign to feel more comfortable not using the framework of good immigrant, bad immigrant. I think that it is outside the comfort zone of pretty much everyone in politics to not use that framework.”
A spokesperson for another group that endorsed Sanders, Mijente, said they thought the question to Shakir at the forum was unfair because "the question was a setup — using the most controversial examples of deportation," said Tania Unzueta.
"Yet, the surrogate talked about people getting deported being the exception, not the rule, a case by case basis on a moratorium," she said.
However, she added, "This is not what we mean by a moratorium, but we expect to have to push a Sanders presidency. We are picking our target, not our savior. We got him this far."
Unzueta said she trusts Sanders' judgement on immigration and navigating policy on the Hill over other candidates.
Other immigrant rights advocates say the apparent shift in policy is concerning because Sanders backing this measure in particular gave millions of immigrant families a sense of relief that they would be protected while a new Democratic president works on other more permanent measures through executive action and legislation in Congress to provide long-term relief to immigrants.
“Yes, you have a good immigration plan, but we don't want to leave anybody behind anymore … We can't continue to say we can only give you this much,” said Cecia Alvarado, Nevada state director for Mi Familia Vota, a Latino community advocacy group. “But they’re not saying that. The candidates themselves, when they’re on a national platform, they don’t say that — just that oh we’re putting a moratorium.
“But when you go in and you have a moderator that’s actually asking the right questions on behalf of us, that’s when they hesitate and then they start creating the barriers, and the divisive narrative goes into place again. So unless we’re really holding them accountable and asking these kinds of questions in every space, we’re lying to our community.”
She added that one reason immigrant rights advocates are particularly concerned about this issue is that people of color, including immigrants, are disproportionately targeted for arrest and incarceration — and many have been referred to ICE and deported directly after being arrested by law enforcement, even if they are ultimately cleared of all charges or were pulled over for minor traffic violations.
A former Hillary Clinton adviser and immigrant rights activist, Jess Morales Rocketto, praised Sanders for his moratorium policy last month, despite her past criticisms of the candidate, because she saw it as a clear marker of his evolution on the policy since 2016.
After seeing Shakir’s comments on Thursday, she said, “Sanders, deservedly, garnered lots of praise for his stance on deportations. Why does his campaign appear to be walking back support for a popular policy?
"Sen. Sanders' supporters and surrogates like to say he has the most progressive immigration policy left in the race — pointing to his deportation moratorium as evidence. In an election where immigration is the number one issue for Trump and his base, it is critical that he stay committed to the most progressive immigration policy throughout this race."
As Sanders moves on to South Carolina and then Super Tuesday as the clear front runner in the race based on results so far, his campaign’s emphasis on building a diverse coalition this time around is going to be tested repeatedly, especially in states like Texas and California where he stands to make significant gains among voters of color who have a personal stake in immigration issues.
Michael Kagan, a Nevada-based immigration law expert, said this ambiguity over what exactly Sanders means by a moratorium is an example of why he endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren over Sanders. (Warren has said she’s “open” to a moratorium.)
“I saw that her plan has detail and I'm concerned that the Sanders moratorium may actually face administrative and legal hurdles that I think the Warren plan doesn’t. So I think the Warren plan may actually be more effective,” Kagan said. “To me, the details matter. You can paint in broad strokes, you can paint in rhetoric, but it's the details that decide whether somebody's dad gets taken away.”