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The Democratic Candidates’ Platforms for Immigration Reform: A Primer

Over the last year, Democratic presidential candidates have made immigration an important part of their platforms, with six candidates putting out detailed plans that list their priorities. Although various factors led these candidates to put out these plans, the Trump administration’s immigration policies largely pushed Democrats to take a defined stance on this issue. The rise of grassroots immigration advocacy groups as an important part of the Democratic Party’s base also contributed to the formation of these plans, especially for candidates from the party’s activist wing such as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). Finally, immigration’s emergence as a key policy priority for all voters has also contributed to this trend in the primary. For instance, an August 2019 BPC/Morning Consult national survey found 85% of registered voters said a 2020 presidential candidate’s plan was very or somewhat important to them.

Since he entered office in 2017, Trump has taken an increasingly stricter stance towards legal and illegal immigration. Through various regulatory measures and executive actions, the White House has been successful in implementing its travel ban, asylum restrictions, the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), and an asylum cooperation agreement with Guatemala. The administration has also secured congressional funding to build a border wall, expanded Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) operations across the United States, and rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. While the administration has deported fewer individuals than the Obama administration, President Trump has been criticized for his stringent immigration policy since entering office. The administration has limited legal immigration through executive actions and reportedly has developed a reform plan that would shift the U.S. immigration system towards a merit-based system, albeit one that his administration has not released.

This info brief analyzes the platforms of the six Democratic candidates who have released public immigration plans as of the date of this writing. Our review, which includes the plans of candidates who remain in the running as well as those who have suspended their campaigns, found that Democratic candidates have focused on four core areas:

  1. Border security and immigration enforcement
  2. Addressing migration from Central America
  3. Legalizing undocumented populations
  4. Reforming the legal immigration system

We found a clear, common thread among the proposals: undoing most of Trump’s policies by executive action. Whether it is reinstating DACA, raising the refugee admissions cap, or ending metering and MPP, every candidate would use executive action to enact many of their policy proposals. However, the Democratic candidates have not proposed any serious overhauls of the legal immigration system, especially in the area of employment-based immigration. Further, the candidates have not outlined a legislative strategy for advancing their immigration priorities, suggesting that a future Democratic president would likely mirror President Trump’s efforts to use executive orders, presidential proclamations, and regulations to alter the immigration system. Given that Trump will likely make immigration a key issue in the general campaign, the eventual Democratic nominee may change their approach to appeal to a broader audience with more diverse views about immigration.

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Figure 1: Democratic Presidential Candidates Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Proposals

CandidatePlan for Border Security and Enforcement
Joe Biden1 • End the Migrant Protection Protocols

• End the metering policy 2

• End prolonged detention and invest in community-based case management programs

• End the national emergency at the border and redirect funds to invest in improving screening infrastructure at ports of entry

• Increase resources for training and demand transparency and independent oversight over ICE and CBP’s activities and operations

• Surge asylum officers to the border to review cases of recent migrants

• Place a moratorium on deportations during the first 100 days in office 3
Mike Bloomberg • End construction of the border wall

• End MPP, metering, and the asylum transit ban

• Invest in smart security measures and upgrade ports of entry

• Reform ICE and CBP to ensure oversight and accountability

• End family separation at the border

• Promote alternatives to detention to individuals and families who pose no threat to public safety

• Affirm asylum protections for those feeling systemic persecution, not for individuals only seeking economic opportunity
Pete Buttigieg • End MPP, the third-country transit asylum ban, and metering

• Ensure asylum screening is undertaken by trained Asylum Officers and never CBP officers

• Shift responsibility for processing centers to the Department of Health and Human Services

• Update border processing facilities and criteria for inspections

• Invest in smart border technology
Julián Castro • Repeal Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act

• End metering and MPP

• Reprioritize CBP to focus on drug and human trafficking

• Reconstitute ICE and reassign enforcement functions to other agencies

• Terminate agreements under Section 287(g)
Amy Klobuchar 4• End the family separation policy

• Reserve the administration’s attempt to overrule the Flores Settlement agreement 5

• Rescind the national emergency declaration and use border wall funding to modernize military bases
Bernie Sanders • Halt all ICE enforcement actions and deportations until audits of enforcement policies would be completed 6
• End metering, MPP, the 287(g) program, and Secure Communities

• Decriminalize border crossings by repealing U.S. Code Section 1325

• End detention for families, children, and immigrants without a violent crime conviction

• Break up ICE and CBP and redistribute their functions to different federal agencies
Tom Steyer• End family separation and detention policies

• Refocus border enforcement on national security

• End 287(g) program, ICE detainers, and Secure Communities

• End MPP, metering, and safe third country agreements

• Work with border communities to address their needs via robust outreach and an open comments period
Elizabeth Warren• End metering and MPP

• Decriminalize border crossings 7

• End the 287(g) programs and Secure Communities

• Restructure ICE and CBP to focus efforts on screening cargo, counterfeit goods and preventing smuggling and human trafficking

• Designate the Department of Justice to investigate accusations of violations within CBP or ICE (such as medical neglect or sexual assault) 8

• Eliminate expedited removal proceedings

• Place a moratorium on deportations to pressure Congress to act on immigration legislation

Policies for Addressing Migration from Central America

Since 2014, the U.S. government has worked closely with partners in Central America to try and address the insecurity, poverty, and unemployment that has produced large migrant flows to the United States from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The sudden growth in migrants from this region in 2018 and 2019 led the Trump administration to rely on an enforcement-based strategy when engaging with the Northern Triangle countries. For instance, the Trump administration withdrew $500 million in development aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras in March 2019 to compel these countries to limit migration from the region. The administration and Northern Triangle countries signed security cooperation agreements and Asylum Cooperation Agreements, or ACAs, that allow the United States to return asylum seekers there. After the countries agreed to these deals, Trump released $143 million in frozen development funds in October 2019.

Democratic candidates’ proposals are characterized by two primary approaches that differ from Trump: increasing development aid and increasing security cooperation with the Northern Triangle countries to improve citizen security. Biden’s proposals on Central America are the most comprehensive, as he formulated an entirely separate foreign policy and development agenda dedicated to addressing the root cause of migration from the region. Buttigieg includes a clause to work with regional partners to address the Venezuelan refugee crisis, which none of the other Democratic candidates explicitly mention in their platforms. In addition, while several candidates emphasize the importance of addressing climate change as a driver of migration, Tom Steyer explicitly states that under his administration, individuals fleeing climate-related disasters or conflicts would be automatically eligible for legal entry to the United States.

Figure 2: Democratic Presidential Candidate Proposals for Addressing Central American Migration

CandidateCentral America Policy
Joe Biden• Develop a four-year, $4 billion regional strategy to address underlying factors driving migration

• Work with development banks to develop infrastructure and promote foreign investment

• Support reforms at the national level to fight corruption and strengthen the judiciary

• Strengthen U.S. investments in reintegrating returning migrants to ensure individuals do not undertake the trek north again

• Develop a strategy to address the effects of climate change as a root cause of migration
Mike Bloomberg• Set the annual refugee resettlement target to 125,000

• Increase aid to Central America, and convene leaders in the hemisphere to improve cooperation and develop a regional approach to refugee resettlement

• Restore Emergency Migration and Refugee assistance funding
Pete Buttigieg• Increase aid to Central America

• Work with regional partners to address the Venezuelan refugee and migrant crisis

• Commit to resettle refugees and allow communities to sponsor refugees and asylum-seekers

• Create a global refugee resettlement fund

• Work with other countries to manage and create a unified response to climate-caused migration

• End asylum cooperation agreements
Amy Klobuchar• Raise the refugee admissions cap 9

• Restore funding for the Northern Triangle countries
Bernie Sanders• Negotiate trade deals that strengthen the rights of workers in the United States and abroad

• Increase aid to Central and South America; fund programs to address corruption, political repression, violence, and poverty

• Raise the refugee admissions cap

• Create a new program to welcome migrants displaced by climate change, and set a floor of accepting at least 50,000 climate migrants during the first year in office
Tom Steyer• Extend aid and technical resources to Central America

• Establish new categories to ensure persons fleeing from climate-related disasters and conflicts are eligible for legal entry to the United States
Elizabeth Warren• Commit $1.5 billion in aid to Central America to fund programs that target crime, trafficking, poverty, and sexual violence

• Expand efforts to reduce corruption and improve the rule of law

• Spread awareness about the dangers of attempting migration

• Reinstate the Central American Minors program

• Coordinate with UNHCR to help resettle children and families who need protection

Legalization of Undocumented Populations

Trump has rescinded legal protections for certain undocumented populations. After campaigning on the promise that he would rescind the Obama-era DACA program, which provides relief from removal and work authorization to individuals who were brought to the United States illegally as children, Trump terminated the program after a group of Republican state attorneys general threatened to launch litigation to end the program. Immigration advocates subsequently filed a successful series of lawsuits against this decision, leading federal courts to resuscitate the program as these cases moved to the U.S. Supreme Court.10 The White House has stated it would support a path to citizenship for DREAMers, but only in exchange for increased border security and cuts to legal immigration.

The Trump administration has also rescinded Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, for most of the countries with the largest and longest-resident TPS populations in the United States. TPS allows individuals from certain countries experiencing armed conflicts, environmental disasters, or other extraordinary conditions to remain in the United States with work authorization for a designated period. After the administration rescinded TPS, multiple lawsuits were filed against the Department of Homeland Security, arguing that the rescission violated the constitutional rights of TPS recipients. Several of these cases were successful in obtaining a preliminary injunction, which barred DHS from implementing the TPS terminations. In response to these legal challenges, DHS announced it would extend TPS for migrants from El Salvador, Haiti, Honduras, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan. The announcement walked back an earlier decision in January 2018 to strip TPS from Salvadoran immigrants.

Every Democratic candidate has advocated for reinstating DACA, expanding TPS protections, and establishing a roadmap to citizenship for the undocumented population. However, only a few candidates explicitly outline whether they would impose limitations or specific requirements (such as not having a criminal record, or the year an individual arrived in the United States) that would dictate who within the undocumented population would be eligible to apply for legal status. Biden explicitly states that only undocumented individuals who register, are up to date on their taxes, and have passed a background check would be eligible for legalization.11 Sanders promises that undocumented individuals who have low-level contacts with the criminal justice system, such as marijuana possession, would not be automatically prevented from attaining citizenship. However, none of the candidates’ platforms specify a time period in which legal status would be granted, nor do they detail the process an individual would have to go through to obtain legal status.12

Figure 3: Democratic Presidential Candidates Proposals for Legalization of Undocumented Populations

CandidatePlan for Legalization of Undocumented Populations
Joe Biden• Create a roadmap to citizenship for the undocumented

• Reinstate the DACA program

• Protect TPS and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED) holders from being returned to countries that are unsafe

• TPS/DED holders who have been in the country for an extended period and built lives in the U.S. will be offered a path to citizenship through legislative immigration reform
Mike Bloomberg• Restore DACA and work with Congress to provide an expedited pathway to citizenship for Dreamers

• Protect individuals with TPS, extend TPS to Venezuelan nationals

• Create an earned pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented
Pete Buttigieg• Establish a roadmap to citizenship for the undocumented (this includes individuals on DACA, TPS, and DED)
Julián Castro• Establish a roadmap to citizenship for the undocumented

• Provide a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers and those under TPS, DED, and DAPA
Amy Klobuchar• Establish a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented
Bernie Sanders• Immediately extend legal status to individuals eligible for DACA

• Push Congress to enact a roadmap to citizenship for the undocumented population
Tom Steyer• Reinstate DACA, DAPA, and revitalize TPS

• Establish a roadmap to citizenship for the undocumented
Elizabeth Warren• Provide a fair roadmap to citizenship for the undocumented (this includes individuals on DACA, TPS, and DED)

• Reinstate the DACA program

Figure 4: Democratic Presidential Candidates Policy Proposals for Legal Immigration

Senator Klobuchar does not specify specific policy proposals for reforming the legal system in her outline for her first 100 days as president.

CandidateLegal Immigration Policy
Joe Biden• Establish a wage-based temporary visa allocation process

• Expand the number of highly skilled visas and eliminate limits on employment-based visas by country

• Increase the number of visas for permanent, employment-based immigration

• Create a new visa category to allow cities and counties to petition for higher level of immigrants to support economic growth

• Double the number of immigration judges in order to reduce the backlog
Mike Bloomberg• Create place-based visas that allow localities to address unmet needs

• Implement a worker authorization mechanism to ensure that employers are hiring only those authorized to work in the United States

• Create an opportunity for international students who graduate with advanced degrees to apply for green cards

• Reverse the public charge rule introduced by the Trump administration

• Allow farmworkers and other temporary workers who return year after year to apply for legal permanent residency
Pete Buttigieg• Create a local Community Renewal (CR) visa to stimulate employment

• Expand the Conrad 30 visa waiver program 15

• Establish a flexible review system where the allotment for employment-based visas will be set every other year based on the country’s economic needs

• End administrative processing backlogs
Julián Castro• Work with Congress to pass the Reuniting Families Act, which recaptures unused employment-based and family-sponsored visas from FY1992-2016 and eliminates the per-country caps to expand the number of Green Cards to address the backlog in both systems.
Bernie Sanders• Work with Congress to pass the Protecting Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act

• Workers Bill of Rights for seasonal workers

• Overhaul and streamline the visa system to reduce errors and costs and eliminate fees
Tom Steyer• Adequately fund agencies that process visa, asylum, and permanent residency applications

• Support the Farm Workforce Modernization Act

• Streamline the H-1B visa application process, increase the number of H1 visas available, and facilitate pathways to permanent residency
Elizabeth Warren• Remove barriers for those eligible for citizenship to naturalize

• Reduce the family reunification backlog by redistributing unused visas


As this brief shows, the Democratic presidential candidates’ immigration plans focus on reversing the Trump administration’s policies that it has incorporated into the operation of the immigration system since 2017. Despite these relatively detailed proposals from the Democratic candidates, the prospect of a general election campaign where immigration will play a central role raises questions over whether the eventual Democratic nominee—or Trump—will adjust their immigration approaches to attract voters with different perspectives about this issue. As BPC’s polling about voters’ immigration priorities for the 2020 election found, Democratic and Republican voters are both willing to compromise over issues such as boosting border security funding and providing a pathway to legal permanent status to individuals who came to the United States as children and are not legally residing in the country. These results strongly suggest that an immigration policy with these types of compromises could garner major public support. So far, neither the Democratic candidates nor Trump have based their immigration plans and policies on these types of compromises. This may be a strategy to boost turnout of their base supporters, especially those that hold similar views about immigration as the candidates but will not likely persuade many others to change their existing views.

1 Joe Biden released two separate policy plans on December 11, 2019. The first plan “Securing Our Value as a Nation of Immigration” is domestically focused, while the second plan, “Building Security and Prosperity in Partnership with the People of Central America,” is internationally focused.
2 The Trump administration has used this practice to limit the number of asylum seekers allowed into the United States each day at a port of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.
3 On February 22, 2020, the Biden campaign reversed its position on deportation moratoriums after a Biden adviser had told BuzzFeed News that the characterizing of recent comments from Biden as supporting a moratorium on deportations was inaccurate.
4 As of writing on February 25, 2020, Amy Klobuchar has yet to release a comprehensive immigration platform. The proposals mentioned in her sections throughout this piece are included in a longer list of actions she plans to undertake during her first 100 days in office.
5 The Flores Settlement Agreement, signed on January 28, 1997 during President Bill Clinton’s administration, sets strict national regulations and standards regarding the detention of minors in federal custody. The agreement prevents prolonged detention of children and prevents children from being detained in inhumane conditions. It is the product of the Supreme Court case Reno v. Flores in 1985, involving Jenny Lisette Flores, an unaccompanied minor from El Salvador, was apprehended after attempting to cross the U.S.-Mexico border and was detained in a facility among adults that was daily strip searched.
6 This policy is not formally part of Sanders’ plan. However, he made a public statement calling for these actions in November 2019. On February 20, 2020, Sanders’ campaign manager said that violent criminals would still be deported under his moratorium plan. This statement reversed Sanders’ previous position that he would apply a blanket moratorium on all deportations pending an ICE policy audit.
7 For more background information on decriminalizing border crossings, please see our most recent brief here.
8 This policy is not formally part of Warren’s plan. However, she made a public statement calling for these actions in November 2019.
9 All Democratic candidates have expressed they will raise the United States’ refugee admissions cap upon entering office.
10 The U.S. Supreme Court heard three cases in November 2019 and will publish its decision over whether the administration ended the program properly as early as March 2020.
11 Biden does not specify what the registration process would look like.
12 Should he be elected, Bernie Sanders has stated he would provide administrative relief to individuals eligible for DACA, their parents, TPS individuals, and parents of legal permanent residents. He would also institute a moratorium on deportations. Republicans have criticized this approach as providing immediate amnesty to the undocumented population.
13 The review of the Democrat’s immigration platforms found that Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg use terms such as “highly-skilled visas” or “employment-based visas” without delineating whether these categories include temporary visas such as the high skilled H-1B visas or employment-based Green Cards.
14 These proposals have an extended history in the immigration policy sphere. Advocacy organizations have promoted state-based visa programs as an important fix to the U.S. Immigration system, frequently citing Canada’s Provincial Nominee Program as a model for this approach. Some states such as Utah have adopted state guest worker programs as formal policies but have not implemented them because the federal government oversees the admissions of non-citizen workers. In response, some members of Congress have introduced legislation that would create pilot programs that would permit states to gain this authority. However, these legislative efforts have not gained traction in Congress.
15 The Conrad 30 visa waiver program allows J-1 medical doctors to apply for a waiver for the 2-year residence requirement upon completion of the J-1 exchange visitor program. The program addresses the shortage of qualified doctors in medically underserved areas.