Presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke’s campaign proposal on immigration — which came out earlier this week, joining Julian Castro’s as the first detailed immigration plans in the Democratic primary field — is an acknowledgment of an important truth that leading Democratic candidates have been loath to acknowledge: Immigration, right now, is an executive-branch issue rather than a legislative-branch issue.
O’Rourke’s plan focuses on curtailing immigration enforcement — in particular, all but eliminating immigration detention — and focusing instead on building up immigration courts and case management systems for newly arriving asylum seekers, while returning Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrests and deportations of immigrants already living in the US to the constraints of President Barack Obama’s last years in office. None of these are things he claims he needs Congress to do, or at least to start doing.
Proposals for “comprehensive immigration reform” have been kicking around in Congress for over a decade, and the politics of the proposal, which centered on a trade-off between increased border security and legalization of current unauthorized immigrants, have grown stale. Even as Republicans have moved to the right on the issue under Donald Trump, Democrats have grown leery of any stepped-up enforcement of immigration laws — and shown increasing enthusiasm for scaling immigration enforcement down.
O’Rourke is leaning into that enthusiasm. In Congress, he took a local approach to immigration, focusing on his border district and his El Paso constituents. As a candidate for Senate and now president, he’s been criticized for making gauzy appeals to a vision of America instead of real policy proposals that might alienate voters. This proposal (for better or worse) is a bridge between the two. While there is some El Paso-style attention to ports of entry and border staffing, it’s mostly a policy in line with a national progressive agenda on immigration, to the extent that one exists.
O’Rourke’s proposal doesn’t have any single plank as radical as Castro’s, which proposes getting rid of the federal law that makes it a crime to enter the US illegally. Instead, it has a barrage of proposed “day one” executive orders that would radically restrict immigration enforcement — amounting to a bigger shift than even the one President Trump made in his first weeks in office, when he signed a series of executive orders (culminating in the first travel ban) that have set his agenda on immigration ever since.
The executive-first strategy reveals another divide in Democratic immigration ideas, though. Many people can agree on reversing Trump’s unprecedented actions, like his efforts to crack down on asylum at the US/Mexico border and to rescind deportation protections for over a million immigrants. But when it comes to addressing the immigration regime that predated Trump — one that, under Obama, resulted in record numbers of deportations of immigrants living within the US — the path forward gets a lot murkier, and the most radical proposals raise serious concerns about politics and practicality.
By Dara Lind for VOX
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