Beto O’Rourke is proposing to remake the US immigration system and change how the federal government treats asylum-seekers at the border, in a detailed plan released Wednesday.
The immigration overhaul includes a mix of executive orders and legislation O’Rourke said he would push early as president, including plans for new community-sponsored immigration visas, looser border detention policies, and pathways to citizenship for immigrants already in the country.
“On day one of his presidency, Beto will use executive authority to stop the inhumane treatment of children, reunite families that have been separated, reform our asylum system, rescind the travel bans, and remove the fear of deportation for Dreamers and beneficiaries of programs like TPS,” the plan says.
So far, O’Rourke is only the second Democratic presidential candidate, behind former housing secretary Julián Castro, to release a detailed immigration plan. Several other candidates have released more general immigration platforms. Both O’Rourke and Castro call for decriminalizing border crossings, adding support for initiatives that aim to stabilize Central American countries, eliminating for-profit immigration prisons, and increasing resources for asylum-seekers in immigration courts.
O’Rourke’s proposal would offer an “immediate path” to citizenship for young undocumented people brought to the US illegally as children and for immigrants who are in the US under a temporary protection program because they are unable to safely return to their home countries.
It would increase caps on several kinds of visas that already exist, and add another category for refugees, which would mean that “communities and congregations” could sponsor refugees to stay in the US.
In addition to eliminating criminal charges against people just for crossing the border, O’Rourke’s proposal would also end immigration detention of anyone without a criminal background, and mandate medical care and humane conditions for people held temporarily in border facilities.
O’Rourke has made immigration one of the central issues of his presidential campaign, which he launched in his hometown of El Paso, just blocks from the US–Mexico border. His soaring rhetoric about the strength of immigrant communities and the impacts of Trump administration policies like family separation helped propel his 2018 race against Sen. Ted Cruz, which he lost by a narrow margin.
But O’Rourke, a former member of Congress, has struggled at times to articulate a clear vision for how to fix the country’s broken immigration system; in a Washington Post interview in January, he offered few specifics beyond a rejection of President Donald Trump’s border wall. (Several weeks later, he put out a more detailed sketch of his ideas.)
Despite an early surge of donations after his campaign’s launch, O’Rourke has slipped in many polls, and his campaign struggled organizationally even as he crisscrossed the country in a flurry of stops in 14 states. His first detailed policy rollout was a $5 trillion plan to combat climate change.
O’Rourke’s campaign is releasing the immigration plan in the lead-up to a weekend in which several 2020 Democrats will likely face more direct questions about their immigration plans, as they converge on California for the state Democratic Party’s organizing convention.
Most Democrats have so far avoided talking about specifics on immigration, in a political climate where Democratic voters are divided on some aspects of immigration reform. While polls in recent years have consistently shown broad support for pathways to citizenship for young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and opposition to a border wall with Mexico, polls have also shown that Democrats generally don’t support abolishing ICE.
But immigration is something that voters in California, home of more progressive state and citywide immigration policies, are more likely to pay close attention to in the lead-up to their March 2020 primary.