If he wins the 2020 presidential election, Beto O’Rourke would move to eviscerate the country’s migrant detention system, extend $5 billion in aid to the violence-torn countries of Central America and launch a major rewrite of immigration laws, according to a nine-page immigration policy proposal the former Texas congressman released on Wednesday.
O’Rourke, a bilingual and bicultural native of El Paso who often sings the praises of the border zone that is maligned by President Donald Trump and frames migration as a benefit to be cultivated rather than a threat to be quashed, has made immigration issues a centerpiece of his political identity. Wednesday’s release reinforces that idea and seeks to rebut criticism that he has relied too heavily on platitudes and calls for debate without offering policy specifics.
But other than being only the second Democratic presidential candidate — nearly two months after fellow Texan Julián Castro — to offer a detailed immigration plan, O’Rourke isn’t taking huge risks on the issue. Much of his plan reflects the broad consensus among Democrats or repudiates Trump policies, including family separation and the blocking of asylum-seekers at the border, that many Democrats despise. And it stops short of endorsing some of the more progressive positions that Castro staked out in early April.
Most notably, Castro, a former Obama-era secretary of housing and urban development, called for repealing that part of the federal criminal code that makes it a misdemeanor to jump the border. O’Rourke, who ran an unsuccessful 2018 campaign to unseat Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), told HuffPost during that campaign that asylum-seekers should be exempted from immigration prosecution. That position is not in his new plan’s outline. O’Rourke’s proposal would leave on the books all laws criminalizing unauthorized border crossings — the same laws that enabled Trump’s “zero tolerance” effort to boost penalties for illegal crossings and was the lynchpin for his administration’s family separation policy.
The rest of O’Rourke’s plan — increased legal immigration, more protection for asylum-seekers, a rollback of migration detention and a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized migrants — reflects the broader leftward shift taking place on immigration within the Democratic Party ever since Trump took office using Mexican migrants as a punching bag and painting Central American families and children at the border as the greatest threat facing the nation.
Trump’s obsession with a border wall and widely reviled experiment with systematic family separations have made liberal immigration views more palatable among both mainstream and progressive Democrats. The percentage of those who said immigration is generally a good thing for America hit a record high of 75% last year, according to a Gallup poll released in the midst of the family separation debacle. Both Republicans and Democrats were more likely than they were in 2016 to say that immigrants “strengthen American society,” according to a December 2018 HuffPost/YouGov poll. And support for increased legal immigration is at a record high for this century, according to the Pew Research Center.
That said, other prominent presidential candidates like Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, as well as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have yet to issue detailed immigration proposals.
It’s also not clear whether former Vice President Joe Biden, who entered the race for the Democratic presidential nomination last month as the clear front-runner, will buck the liberal trend. His decadeslong political career spans a time when most Democrats held far more hawkish views on immigration.
Most of O’Rourke’s immigration proposals run directly counter to Trump’s policies. Migration, in general, would climb under the Texan’s plan, which would lift visa caps for workers, investors and entrepreneurs of all skill levels.
In addition to creating a pathway to citizenship for the country’s 11 million unauthorized migrants, including Dreamers and those with temporary protected status, O’Rourke’s plan would expand the use of family reunification as a basis for issuing immigration visas and create a new category allowing community sponsorship of refugee visas.
Under O’Rourke, asylum-seekers would enjoy new protections, including funding to guarantee access to lawyers, which the government does not currently provide in immigration court. Women and children would regain the legal grounds to request asylum based on fear of domestic violence or targeting by criminal gangs. And Citizenship and Immigration Services would gain the ability to decide asylum cases, alleviating an immigration court backlog that has swelled to more than 1 million cases since Trump took office.
An O’Rourke administration would limit detention of migrants to those with criminal backgrounds serious enough to represent “a danger to our communities.” Although the plan doesn’t specify what types of offenses would warrant detention, his pledge to eliminate private prison contractors from the detention system would drastically scale back the number of beds for which Immigration and Customs Enforcement now contracts.
Prior to Trump’s election, Congress mandated that ICE maintain a detention bed capacity of about 34,500. In practice, that number has shot up to more than 50,000 in the years since Trump took office. Before the Trump expansion, about two-thirds of those beds were managed under private contracts, according to a report by Austin-based advocacy group Grassroots Leadership.
While O’Rourke’s plan would leave the illegal entry statute untouched, his pledge to more broadly cancel federal contracts with private prison companies would put a major dent in prosecutions for petty border-crossing violations. O’Rourke’s plan would eliminate private contractors from both migrant detention and the federal prison system, campaign spokesman Chris Evans confirmed.
And the president’s signature policy proposal would get the ax, too, O’Rourke told CNN in an interview that aired Wednesday.
“We certainly don’t need more walls,” he said.