The 2020 Democratic Primary Candidates On Immigration 

by Daniel Morales Campos

The immigration debate in the United States is perhaps the most polarizing and toxic among contemporary issues. It is also one of the most consequential for our economy, democracy, and society as a whole. As part of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal’s effort to foster informed dialogue regarding this year’s Democratic Primary, I have taken a look at the immigration reform plans of the top five Democratic presidential candidates to date: Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Michael Bloomberg, and Amy Klobuchar. I’ve read their plans and have created a table that allows for a simple comparison of each candidate’s position on the issues I believe to be most important. But first, some background on how immigration reform became such an important issue to so many.

Immigration policy serves as a primary determinant of diversity in any country, and for much of U.S. history, our policies reflected white supremacist preferences. The first federal immigration law in 1790 limited citizenship to white people of “good character”. Another in 1882 banned Chinese immigrants. We then created a racist national origins quota system that was designed to favor northern and western European immigrants– a system that lasted until 1965. Several reforms since have partially repudiated this legacy in favor of bipartisan compromises. For much of the ‘80s and ‘90s, Democrats and Republicans generally agreed on a system that prioritized family reunification and labor skills and that discouraged unlawful entry to the U.S. This general consensus led to reforms like the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which provided a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people in the U.S while also penalizing employers who hired undocumented laborers. The 1990 Immigration Act expanded legal immigration through increases in caps on the number of people who could immigrate legally to the U.S. annually and established new visas, including the H1-B and the diversity visa. By the mid ‘90s, the politics around immigration had shifted in favor of harsher penalties and greater enforcement. A Human Rights Watch report attributes this shift to the 1993 World Trade Center Bombing, popular support for the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in California in 1994, and the 1995 Oklahoma City Bombing. Whatever the cause, this shift paved the way for the passage of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which put in place many of the harshest punishments for undocumented immigrants on the books today. These include an expansion of deportable offenses, the creation of expedited removal (a new category of deportation without trial), new bars to green cards and citizenship, and filing restrictions for asylum seekers. While these reforms have had complex and mixed effects on the U.S. economy and immigrant communities throughout the country, what has become clear is that the resulting system is increasingly dysfunctional. 

Today, millions of U.S. legal residents and citizens remain separated from family members due to punitive restrictions toward the undocumented and years-long backlogs for those abroad. At the same time, millions of workers are locked out of the U.S. labor market every year, while the U.S. economy faces shortages in several key low- and high-skilled sectors. These backlogs and self-defeating restrictions are due, in part, to our outdated visa cap system that strictly limits the number of employment and family-based visas and sets an arbitrary per-country cap of seven percent, which prohibits any one country from having its nationals receive more than seven percent of total available visas per year. The failures of the current system are further evidenced, perhaps most dramatically, by the approximately 11 million people who are already members of American society but lack a pathway to legal status and the civil and political rights and protections that accompany it. The current system simply has no place where most undocumented people can go to try and get right with the law. 

Over the years, bipartisan reforms put forward as “comprehensive immigration reform” (CIR), have included measures to address the status of undocumented people, update the visa system, and increase funding for border security. Despite several efforts since 2005 to pass a CIR bill, little has changed except that the bipartisan consensus on immigration has largely eroded due to a resurgence of white supremacism. Today, many Republicans openly oppose the family reunification principle on the basis that it represents a demographic threat to the white majority in this country. Some, including the President, now call it “chain migration” and propose even greater restriction. Others insist that border security must come before the status of the undocumented can be addressed. Most Democrats, on the other hand, see the passage of a CIR bill, and the use of executive orders and regulatory changes in the interim, as the best approach. 

Every presidential candidate in the 2020 Democratic Primary has put forth immigration proposals that seek to overhaul the current system. While there is universal support across candidates for rolling back Trump policies on DACA and asylum and advancing CIR proposals like a pathway to citizenship, there is considerable divergence amongst candidates with regard to more recent policy issues raised under Trump. In many ways, the amount of harm that the Trump Administration has been able to inflict on immigrant families by simply enforcing current law without discretion serves as strong evidence in support of a more fundamental rethinking of our immigration system. For this reason, I believe that candidate positions on the repeal of the 1996 laws, 8 U.S. Code Section 1325, which criminalizes unlawful entry (and provided the legal basis for family separation); establishing an immigrants’ right to counsel; and the role of immigration enforcement agencies may best indicate how boldly each candidate would act on immigration as President. 

Issues  Bernie Sanders Joe Biden Elizabeth Warren  Michael Bloomberg Amy Klobuchar
Pathway to Citizenship  
Employment Visa Expansion
Family Based Visa Expansion
Repeal of 1996 Laws 1 2 3
Break Up ICE/CBP4
Repeal 8 U.S. Code Section 1325
Establish Right to Counsel
Temporary Moratorium on Deportation
Reinstating DACA 
Expanding Deferred Action
End “Remain in Mexico” Policy
End For-profit Detention 

Daniel Morales Campos is an MPP candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Prior to joining GSPP, he spent four years at the National Immigrant Justice Center providing legal services to detained unaccompanied immigrant children.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.

  1. Sanders plan calls for a repeal of the 3 and 10 year bars to reentry and expedited removal.
  2. Warren plan calls for a repeal of the 3 and 10 year bars to reentry and expedited removal
  3. Bloomberg plan calls for a repeal of the 3 and 10 year bars to reentry
  4. All candidates who do not support breaking up ICE/CBP advocate reforming the agencies instead