Elizabeth Warren Wants To Dramatically Reshape Immigration Enforcement

Decriminalization of border violations and deprivatizaton of the immigrant detention system are rapidly becoming Democratic consensus positions.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) would decriminalize border-crossing violations, dramatically scale back detention and use executive action to skirt congressional deadlock on comprehensive immigration reform if elected, according to a detailed plan her campaign released Thursday.

Warren’s plan, made available ahead of a candidate forum with Latino civic leaders in Milwaukee, would roll back the Trump administration’s hard-line policies and embrace a set of more progressive policies that have gained traction in a highly competitive primary. And though Warren casts President Donald Trump as uniquely hostile to immigrants, she implied that both parties share blame for America’s immigration dysfunction.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks at the 25th Essence Festival in New Orleans, July 6, 2019.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks at the 25th Essence Festival in New Orleans, July 6, 2019.

“While Trump may have taken the system to its most punitive extreme, his racist policies build on a broken immigration system and an enforcement infrastructure already primed for abuse,” Warren’s plan reads.

The plan leads with her previously expressed aim to decriminalize border-crossing violations by championing the repeal of a pair of laws used to jail migrants who cross without authorization or get arrested after a deportation. Under U.S. law, those infractions already violate civil law, under which deportations are carried out.

For most of recent history, the civil system had almost exclusive authority over such immigration violations.

“This obsessive focus ties up federal prosecutors and overwhelms federal courts,” Warren’s plan reads. “It’s costly and unnecessary. And under Trump, it has become increasingly abusive.”

When President Bill Clinton took office in 1993, prosecutions for immigration violations accounted for about 4 percent of the federal criminal caseload, with about 3,200 cases. Last year, the Trump administration prosecuted 94,000 criminal immigration cases, taking up well over half the federal criminal docket. Meanwhile, prosecutions for white-collar crime hit a 20-year low last year, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse database at Syracuse University.

Instead, Warren would have the Justice Department focus on crimes that aren’t already policed and punished by a separate and much civil larger system, like organized crime, hate crimes and financial fraud.

In April, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro became the first Democratic presidential candidate to champion decriminalizing migration, and challenged others to follow his lead during the debates. Immigrant rights activists and criminal justice reformers have long supported the idea.

The Warren campaign says her administration would also dramatically scale back the migrant detention system, which currently houses more than 52,000 people awaiting deportation.

Contending that alternatives to detention like community supervision, case management and periodic check-ins would cost pennies on the dollar compared to privatized lockups, Warren pledged to cancel contracts with private prison companies, like CoreCivic and Geo Group, that control about two-thirds of the detention system.

“President Trump has weaponized deportation in ways that are costly, ineffective, and designed to maximize pain,” the plan reads. “It’s time to end this cruelty ― and refocus on true threats to public safety and national security instead.”

Warren’s plan embraces a spate of immigration principles that are becoming standard among Democrats vying for the opportunity to oust Trump. She supports undocumented immigrants having ample opportunity to access a pathway to citizenship. She would scrap the three- and 10-year bars that require many unauthorized immigrants to go back to the country of their birth for those time periods before adjusting their status.

Warren would also make immigration courts independent, something former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas), another 2020 presidential contender, has likewise called for. Immigration courts operate as an administrative branch of the Justice Department, and the attorney general has the power to overturn judges’ rulings. The Warren plan would create a public defender program to guarantee migrants access to lawyers in immigration court, which are not currently provided at government expense.

Warren says she would expand the eligibility for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, the Obama-era program that shields undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as youths from deportation ― though she would not use executive authority to provide a pathway to citizenship, as Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) has promised. And she would use executive authority to offer deportation protection and work authorization to parents of U.S. citizens and Dreamers on a case-by-case basis.

The campaign says her administration would also raise the refugee cap, work to expand legal immigration and boost aid to Central America to reduce the pressure on people in that region to migrate north.

The Massachusetts senator is the fifth candidate to release a road map for how she would challenge Trump on his signature issue of immigration. She was preceded by Castro, O’Rourke, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.). While Harris has not released a detailed immigration proposal, she has offered the most unique way to use existing law to address the problems facing Dreamers through executive action.

Warren is scheduled to speak Thursday at a forum hosted by the League of United Latin American Citizens, the country’s oldest Hispanic civic rights group.

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