Four Democratic presidential candidates pledged to roll back President Donald Trump’s executive actions on immigration and make comprehensive immigration reform a priority issue at a forum Friday in Pasadena, California.
The similarity in their positions underscored how Trump’s hardline policies have united Democrats on what was once a sharply divisive issue.
Echoing one another over a series of four solo question-and-answer periods, Sen. Kamala Harris, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said they would work with activists to get a comprehensive reform bill to Congress shortly after taking office. At least three of them pledged to do so in their first 100 days. The fourth, Inslee, said he would do so “as soon as humanly possible.”
“Every day that we do not resolve this issue, there are real consequences for real people,” Harris said.
The candidates repeatedly spoke with one voice when it came to undoing the immigration policies of the Trump administration.
“We have a president who is a racist, who is a pathological liar,” Sanders said in his opening remarks.
All four candidates would overturn the travel restrictions on some Muslim-majority countries and reinstate the Obama-era program to protect Dreamers, known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. They all repeatedly condemned the White House’s seven-week experiment with systematic family separations at the border last year. Harris called the policy a “human rights violation committed by the United States government.”
Another theme that united them was ending the reliance on private prison contractors to provide bed space for the migrant detention system. Such a move, which could be accomplished without congressional approval, would drastically scale back a system in which most lockups are privately run as for-profit enterprises.
In speeches that were long on pro-immigrant sentiment and often short on policy specifics, Castro did the most to set himself apart by highlighting his call for the decriminalization of border crossings ― a position he first staked out last month, when he became the first Democratic presidential candidate to release a comprehensive plan.
Other Democratic candidates have decried the Trump policy of family separations at the border but have declined to follow Castro in calling for the repeal of the law that made it possible. Crossing the border illegally is a federal crime punishable by up to six months for the first offense. Homeland Security officials argue that those penalties help deter migrants, but critics contend that criminal charges for illegal crossings are costly and redundant, since those arrested on immigration violations will go through civil deportation proceedings regardless.
Immigration prosecutions take up more than half the federal criminal caseload under the “zero tolerance” policy adopted by Trump’s first pick for attorney general, Jeff Sessions. The Justice Department’s focus on such prosecutions, however, dates to the George W. Bush years and had already swallowed up half the federal criminal docket by Obama’s first year in office.
Castro also reiterated his call for a major aid package for Central America, likening it to the Marshall Plan that helped rebuild Europe after World War II.
Inslee, who has made climate change issues the thrust of his campaign, called for the United States to develop a plan to address environmental destruction in Central America, where global warming has already begun disrupting agriculture.
“We already know we have climate migrants today,” he said.
Castro was the first to release a comprehensive policy statement on immigration last month. Beto O’Rourke, who did not appear at Friday’s forum, was the second major candidate to release one, followed by Inslee on Friday morning.