Bernie and Buttigieg on Immigration



The Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary are in the books. The Nevada and South Carolina primary contests are all that stand between the remaining candidates and Super Tuesday, where 16 states and territories will hold their primary events to determine the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential candidate.

After two contests, two candidates emerged as formidable front runners – socialist senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg. At the time of this writing, Buttigieg held 22 delegates to Sanders’ 21. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) tallied eight, senator Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) seven, and former vice president Joe Biden just six. The strong start of Sanders and Buttigieg in two contests led the Associated Press to quip that the Democrats now have two front-runners. Where did these front runners come from, and what are their proposals for addressing immigration?

Bernie Sanders

Sanders is a lifelong socialist who spent the better part of his Senate career doing relatively little before challenging Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. While caucusing with the Democrats in the Senate, Sanders has never formally joined the Democratic Party. However, he did sign a loyalty pledge in 2019 stating that he would run and govern as a Democrat if he were to win the Party’s nomination. Before his 2015-2016 presidential campaign, Sanders actually held restrictionist views on immigration.

In 2007 Sanders stated that “if poverty is increasing, and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are right now.” Sanders even voted against the 2007 comprehensive immigration bill that FAIR opposed.

Since then, Sanders’ tone changed. He adopted the more traditional Democratic platform of advocating for expanded immigration and a loosening of existing immigration restraints. He introduced his 2020 immigration proposal in November 2019. The proposal lists five key promises that Sanders would pursue if elected president:

  1. Pause all deportations and “audit” the existing removal process
  2. Reinstate President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)
  3. Eliminate Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and “completely reshape our immigration enforcement system”
  4. Eliminate detention centers
  5. Expand asylum and accept “climate refugees”

Sanders promises to accomplish these goals largely through the use of executive action. Sanders pledges to reverse or eliminate all of President Trump’s immigration-related executive actions, including the successful Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP) and safe third country agreements that ended the humanitarian and security crisis at the southern border in the latter half of 2019.

Sanders’ plan is not restricted to only executive action. His website states that he will “push Congress to enact a swift, fair pathway to citizenship for the 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living, working, and contributing in America today.” He will encourage Congress to decriminalize illicit border crossings and repeal the Clinton-era Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which established the 287(g) program and set the foundations of the E-Verify program.

Sanders’ volte-face on immigration is noticeable. In 2007, he voted against an amnesty bill which would have accomplished much of what he is now arguing for today. But Sanders’ 2020 plan places himself well within the orthodox view among the Democratic field’s primary candidates.

Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg had no national profile before launching his campaign in early 2019. When he announced his campaign from South Bend in 2019, he became the first openly gay candidate to seek the Democratic nomination for president, as well as the youngest in the 2020 field. He quipped to the New York Timesthat “I’m definitely the only left-handed Maltese-American-Episcopalian-gay-millennial-war veteran in the race, but I think profile is just what gets you that first look.” Since his success in Iowa and New Hampshire, Buttigieg has carved out a path as a moderate, center-left candidate contrasted to the revolutionary leftism of Sanders.

Buttigieg’s immigration plan is remarkably detailed for a mayor with no experience in Federal immigration policy. Like his rival Sanders, Buttigieg hinges his plan on a few points, which are:

  1. Promote belonging and democracy.
  2. Modernize our immigration system.
  3. Protect the border and the people who arrive there.
  4. Engage with the global community.

These policy proposals are much vaguer than Sanders’ concrete statements. Unlike Sanders, however, the Buttigieg campaign includes a more academic 18-page white paper detailing the candidate’s immigration vision. Like most of the Democratic field, Buttigieg supports a path to citizenship for more than 11 million illegal aliens currently residing in the United States. Some of his proposals are more nuanced, such as promoting voter registration at naturalization ceremonies and allowing green card holders to “pre-register” before their naturalization is complete.

President Trump continues to call for a merit-based immigration system to replace our current, outdated regime. Buttigieg suggests his own spin on the merit-based plan, by “creating a flexible review system where the allotment for employment-based visas will be set every other year based on our economy’s needs.” His campaign website notes that this idea originated from a Migration Policy Institute paper published by four of its researchers.

Buttigieg, like Sanders, calls for the end of state-Federal enforcement partnerships such as the 287(g) program. He promises to end all of President Trump’s executive actions such as MPP and our safe third country agreements with Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries. Buttigieg swears to restore the DACA program and expand protections for those on Temporary Protected Status (TPS).

Unlike Sanders, Buttigieg does not call for abolishing ICE and CBP, nor does he call for a significant reshuffling of DHS. Although they agree on amnestying all illegal aliens and restoring DACA, Buttigieg does not go as far as Sanders in calling for the halting of all removals, the elimination of federal detention, and the expansion of asylum to include people affected by climate change.

Ultimately, a lot can happen between now and the Democratic National Convention in July. Sanders and Buttigieg have the lead in delegates now, but face a long road and fierce competition before either can claim the Party’s mantle. At this stage in the contest, it is entirely likely that neither will win the nomination. But after two contests, these two candidates stand as the early leaders of the Democratic field. Their positions on immigration, while different, overlap in key areas: citizenship for all illegal aliens living in the country, the restoration of DACA, and the recension of President Trump’s executive actions.

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