How Democratic Proposals on Immigration Are Being Distorted

There can be no doubt that Julian Castro raised his profile significantly as a result of his performance in the first Democratic primary debate. While he hasn’t seen the kind of bump in the polls that Kamala Harris has enjoyed, he set the bar for how Democrats will address the issue of immigration.

A chorus of Republicans have reacted by echoing Trump’s lie that Democrats favor “open borders,” while NeverTrumpers clutch their pearls about how this issue could hand the 2016 election to Trump. But to the extent that Castro’s plan for immigration reform becomes the standard for a Democratic response, hardly anyone is paying attention to what he has actually proposed. Perhaps it is time to remedy that.

Pundits and voters can read Castro’s “People First” immigration plan at his web site. He divides it into three sections: (1) reforming our immigration system, (2) creating a humane border policy, and (3) establishing a 21st century “Marshall Plan” for Central America.

Some of the key elements of immigration reform that Castro incorporates are to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (including Dreamers and those with temporary protected status), rescind Trump’s Muslim and refugee ban, and reverse Trump’s cuts to refugee admissions. In other words, he affirms many of the positions that Democrats have embraced since the bipartisan approach to comprehensive immigration reform was negotiated back in 2013.

Several of the elements Castro included to create a humane border policy focus on undoing the damage created by the Trump administration. For example, he would end construction of the border wall, as well as Trump’s efforts to send asylum-seekers back to Mexico.

The item that Castro emphasized during the debate was his proposal to end the criminalization of undocumented immigrants, making border crossing a civil, rather than criminal (misdemeanor) offense. This is the part of his plan that has so many people claiming that he is proposing open borders. But that isn’t true. Immigrants would still face court proceedings that could result in their deportation. The one thing that would change is that they wouldn’t be detained while that process proceeds.

One of the lies we hear constantly from the Trump administration is that 90 percent of immigrants don’t show up for their court hearings if they are not detained. Washington Post fact checker Salvador Rizzo gave that one four Pinocchios. Researchers at the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) at Syracuse University found that 81 percent of migrant families attended court hearings, with the number increasing to 99 percent for those with legal representation.

Castro’s plan would incorporate that information by providing better funding for immigration courts, as well as legal assistance to migrant families. Having decriminalized immigration, he would reprioritize Customs and Border Protection to focus on drug and human trafficking.

The strength of Castro’s plan comes from the fact that he not only focuses on more humane treatment of migrants, but his Marshall Plan for Central America swims upstream to focus on solving the problem at its roots. The Trump administration has signaled that they actually prefer to implement a nativist strategy at our border by eliminating funding that was targeted at addressing the issues that have led people to flee their homes. Castro would turn that around. Working with our partners across Latin American, he would “bolster economic development, superior labor rights, and environmentally sustainable jobs.”

If you’ve followed me this far, you’ll understand why it was impossible to cover all of that during a debate in which answers were limited to 60 seconds. Meanwhile, all Republicans have to do is shout that Democrats want “open borders,” while claiming that we are being invaded by criminals. But we should expect more from the pearl-clutchers like Andrew Sullivan.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.