Im­mi­gra­tion opens ide­o­log­i­cal fault lines for 2020 Democrats

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Will Weissert

WASH­ING­TON — Bernie San­ders is adding his sup­port to a call by some of his fel­low pres­i­den­tial hope­fuls for de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing il­le­gal bor­der cross­ings, a pro­posal that’s fur­ther ex­pos­ing deep ide­o­log­i­cal di­vides in the Demo­cratic pri­mary and may prove po­lit­i­cally treach­er­ous for the party in the gen­eral elec­tion.

The Ver­mont se­na­tor re­leased a de­tailed im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy pro­posal on Thurs­day, writ­ing, “Unau­tho­rized pres­ence in the United States is a civil, not a crim­i­nal, of­fense.” He vowed to re­peal ex­ist­ing statutes that put “bor­der cross­ings on par with other forms of im­mi­gra­tion vi­o­la­tions, such as over­stay­ing a visa.”

Mas­sachusetts Sen. El­iz­a­beth War­ren called in July for re­peal­ing the crim­i­nal pro­hi­bi­tion against cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally, promis­ing in her own im­mi­gra­tion plan to “im­me­di­ately is­sue guid­ance to end crim­i­nal pros­e­cu­tions for sim­ple ad­min­is­tra­tive im­mi­gra­tion vi­o­la­tions.” South Bend, In­di­ana, Mayor Pete But­tigieg has sug­gested he’d sup­port mak­ing il­le­gal bor­der cross­ings civil of­fenses, but not in cases in which “fraud is in­volved,” a po­ten­tially key caveat. Former Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den also hasn’t fully backed de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion of il­le­gal bor­der cross­ings, say­ing dur­ing a July pres­i­den­tial de­bate, “If you cross the bor­der il­le­gally, you should be able to be sent back. It’s a crime.”

The is­sue il­lus­trates an­other im­por­tant fault line be­tween rel­a­tive mod­er­ates l i ke Bi­den and But­tigieg and those White House can­di­dates will­ing to openly em­brace pro­gres­sive val­ues like San­ders and War­ren. Still, grap­pling with full de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion could be a tough sell for Democrats af­ter the pri­mary when their nom­i­nee will face vot­ers who may dis­agree with Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s hard-line U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der poli­cies — he leads cheers of “Fin­ish the wall!” at his ral­lies — but worry about mov­ing too far in the other di­rec­tion.

“The prob­lem with de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing un­doc­u­mented cross­ings is it ful­fills the Re­pub­li­can nar­ra­tive that Democrats want open bor­ders, and that will be an ab­so­lute killer for us in Novem­ber,” said Colin Strother, a Texas Demo­cratic strate­gist who lived for years along the Rio Grande.

In Thurs­day’s plan, San­ders also promised to use ex­ec­u­tive or­ders to halt con­struc­tion of the U.S.Mex­ico bor­der wall, put a mora­to­rium on all de­por­ta­tions un­til cur­rent fed­eral pol­icy can be au­dited and al­low peo­ple seek­ing U.S. asy­lum to re­main in the coun­try while their claims are pro­cessed rather than be­ing sent to Mex­ico or else­where. And he vowed to break up the De­part­ment of Home­land Se­cu­rity.

San­ders said he was tak­ing back an is­sue that should be about hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism and not be viewed through the na­tional se­cu­rity prism it of­ten has been since the Sept. 11 ter­ror­ist at­tacks — nor used to stoke racist fears for po­lit­i­cal gain like he said Trump has done. His ad­vis­ers shrugged off con­cerns that de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing il­le­gal bor­der cross­ings may make their cam­paign, or those of other Democrats, seem soft on im­mi­gra­tion.

Even as Trump, who has de­nied be­ing racist, makes im­mi­gra­tion a cen­ter­piece of his re­elec­tion strat­egy, how­ever, it has largely been over­shad­owed i n the Demo­cratic pri­mary by other is­sues such as uni­ver­sal health cov­er­age un­der “Medi­care for All.” It was most cham­pi­oned by two White House hope­fuls from Texas, one of whom has al­ready dropped out of the race and an­other who may do so soon.

In April, former Obama Hous­ing Sec­re­tary Ju­lian Cas­tro be­came the first Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial hope­ful to re­lease a com­pre­hen­sive im­mi­gra­tion plan and to sup­port mak­ing cross­ing the bor­der il­le­gally a civil rather than crim­i­nal of­fense. But Cas­tro is wind­ing down his pres­ence in the key early state of New Hamp­shire and isn’t likely to qual­ify for the de­bate later this month in Ge­or­gia, rais­ing ques­tions about how much longer he can con­tinue.

KEREM YUCEL/GETTY-AFP

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Bernie San­ders sup­ports de­crim­i­nal­iz­ing cross­ing the U.S. bor­der.

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