MILWAUKEE, Wis. — Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Thursday called for remaking two of the country’s immigration enforcement agencies “from top to bottom” and establishing independent immigration courts, and she reiterated her support for decriminalizing border crossings in a wide-ranging plan to overhaul the country’s immigration process.
The plan puts Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat running for president, firmly on the liberal side of the immigration debate. Her announcement comes as many Democratic voters are angered by reports of squalid conditions in U.S. border facilities, the separation of children from parents and President Trump’s threats to deport “millions.”
Other Democratic 2020 presidential contenders have also offered far-reaching immigration proposals, including Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who wants to close detention facilities with subpar conditions, and former Obama administration housing secretary Julián Castro, who first pushed for decriminalizing illegal border crossings.
Castro’s outspoken position on the issue, and his success in highlighting it at the first Democratic debate, has put pressure on other candidates to announce positions on immigration beyond denouncing Trump.
Still much of the Warren proposal is framed as reversing actions taken by Trump, whom she blames for creating a hostile environment to migrants as a political strategy.
“Donald Trump wants to divide us - to pit worker against worker, neighbor against neighbor,” Warren wrote in her plan. “We can be better than this. Americans know that immigrants helped weave the very fabric of our country in the past - and they know that immigrants belong here today.”
Warren offered her plan ahead of an appearance Thursday, along with several other Democratic candidates, at a conference of the League of United Latin American Citizens, the nation’s oldest Hispanic civil rights organization. Warren has set her presidential campaign apart by offering a stream of detailed policy ideas, often unveiling them ahead of forums where she is scheduled to appear on the same day as other 2020 contenders, in hopes of driving the conversation.
Much of Warren’s immigration proposal would be enacted by executive action, a nod to the difficulty of passing immigration legislation through a bitterly divided Congress.
This includes a pledge to “reshape” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, two federal agencies that have faced scrutiny for their roles in carrying out the president’s immigration agenda. She wants the two agencies to focus more directly on security-related functions, including “screening cargo, identifying counterfeit goods, and preventing smuggling and trafficking.”
More broadly, Warren said she wants to “change the culture” in both places.
She proposes ending the 287(g) and “Secure Communities” programs, which provide for local law enforcement agents to help identify and detain undocumented residents. She would limit detentions only to those perceived as flight risks and instead use unspecified other tools to “track and monitor” migrants.
Like several other Democratic candidates, Warren would also restore or expand Obama-era initiatives, including offering asylum to those fleeing domestic or gang violence, along with gay, lesbian and transgender migrants seeking protection. She’d reactivate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA, which protects “dreamers” - undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children - from deportation.
She would expand the temporary protected status program, which protects migrants from deportation to war-torn countries or those experiencing natural disasters and has been cut back by Trump.
Warren would increase the annual cap on refugees allowed into the United States to 125,000, after that figure was cut to a historic low of 30,000 under the Trump administration. Her goal is to eventually lift it to 175,000, which would put it well above limits set by the past three presidents.
If Warren is the eventual Democratic nominee, or if that nominee adopts similarly far-reaching immigration policies, it would set up a major political, social and cultural battle with Trump, who has made cracking down on illegal immigration a centerpiece of his political identity.
To address some of the root causes of migration, Warren would spend about $1.5 billion a year on aid programs in Central and South America and “rally the international community to match those funds.”
But to fully enact her ideas, Warren would need cooperation from Congress, which for years has been unable to pass a broad immigration plan amid sharp divisions over the right approach.
That includes her plan to set up separate immigration courts modeled after the traditional federal courts.
Warren argues that the current system, in which the Department of Justice appoints immigration judges and the attorney general can overturn rulings, puts too much power in the hands of the executive branch. “I’ll work to create a credible, independent system,” her plan says.
She’d also need congressional approval for her proposal to permanently ban the use of for-profit detention facilities and to offer a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented workers in the country.
Finally, Warren says she would pardon any Americans charged with a crime for providing food or supplies to detained migrants.
Though most of the plan is framed as a rebuke of Trump, Warren also took a veiled jab at former vice president Joe Biden by noting that border crossings had been criminalized by former senator Coleman Livingston Blease, D-S.C., whom she merely described as a “segregationist senator.”
Biden has touted his working relationship with two segregationist senators early in his career despite disagreeing with them on racial matters, though he later apologized for his comments. He was not referring to Blease, who served in the U.S. Senate from 1924 to 1931.