O’Rourke’s plan focuses on three broad objectives: Use executive authority to quickly reverse many of Trump’s policies; halt construction of a wall along the southern border; overhaul the asylum system to more quickly process claims and protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation. It would push Congress to enact sweeping immigration changes that include a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and a new visa category that would allow communities and religious congregations to sponsor refugees;invest $5 billion in the Northern Triangle region of Central America, which comprises Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The border is a key part of O’Rourke’s identity, as he has spent nearly his entire life living in El Paso, and he has long opposed militarizing the border, challenged those who describe the border as an unsafe place and urged Americans to treat immigrants and migrants with compassion. But O’Rourke avoided getting involved with attempts at sweeping immigration reform during his six years in the House of Representatives, during which the United States saw a massive influx of Central American asylum seekers and unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border.
Although Trump has made immigration a key part of his presidency, O’Rourke is only the second Democratic presidential candidate to release a formal, detailed plan with alternative ideas. Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio who was a Housing and Urban Development Department secretary under Barack Obama, released a plan nearly two months ago that called for a wholesale rejection of Trump’s approach, while ending criminal penalties for migrants who enter the country illegally and dramatically lessening the use of detention in enforcing immigration laws.
O’Rourke has repeatedly avoided taking a clear position on decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings, but his plan states that detention centers should only be used for “those with criminal backgrounds representing a danger to our communities.”
O’Rourke’s plan — which he is calling “In Our Own Image” — contains many ideas he already regularly talks about on the campaign trail, along with several new ones. In writing it, O’Rourke consulted with immigration lawyers and advocates who are helping to address an influx of the number of migrants in the El Paso area, according to the El Paso Times. O’Rourke said in a tweet that the plan would provide “the most sweeping rewrite of U.S. immigration law in a generation,” and he recently told CNN: “I think we go a lot further than really anyone in this plan.”
In it, O’Rourke takes direct aim at Trump, calling his administration’s policies “cruel and cynical” and accusing the president of “manufacturing crises in our communities” in an effort to divide the country.
If elected president, O’Rourke says that he would immediately reverse several of Trump’s immigration-related executive orders and policies, including those that encourage detention and deportation, narrow protections for migrants fleeing domestic violence, and limit the number of migrants who can claim asylum.
O’Rourke would then enact several executive orders of his own, including ones that would replace the use of detention with community-based programs and family case management and reinstate an Obama Administration program that allowed Central American children fleeing violence to apply to join their immigrant parents in the United States. O’Rourke also wants to change the “culture and processes for handling asylum claims” by increasing immigration court staffing so that asylum seekers can receive decisions more quickly and sending as many as 2,000 lawyers to the border.
O’Rourke has long said that security along the southern border is excessive and beyond the point of diminishing returns, and his plan promises to “immediately halt work on the border wall” — but also to support legislation that would invest in “smart, long-term border security” that includes better tracking visa holders and harmonizing entry-exit systems with Mexico and Canada. O’Rourke also called for increased staffing at ports to better detect drug smuggling and human trafficking, along with lessening delays that have frustrated cross-border businesses.
During his first 100 days in office, O’Rourke said that he “will put the full weight of the presidency behind passing legislation” to reform immigration laws — a pledge similar to one Obama made, although Congress has not passed a major immigration bill in more than 30 years. Such legislation would prioritize reuniting families, simplify the naturalization process and create an “earned pathway to citizenship” for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States and provide a quicker pathway for those who have already been given temporary status through programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.
O’Rourke also wants to create a new kind of visa category that would allow communities and religious congregations to sponsor refugees, in addition to increasing the overall number of visas granted and better tracking of visa holders.
Lastly, O’Rourke’s plan calls for a better partnership with countries in the Western Hemisphere to address violence and poverty in the Northern Triangle countries that many migrants are fleeing. That includes investing $5 billion in the region, confronting corruption there, and supporting community-based violence prevention strategies, protecting human rights, growing small-scale farming, improving access to health care and increasing job, training and education opportunities for youth. O’Rourke also called for strengthened asylum and refugee protection systems in Mexico and across the region to better manage the flow of migrants.
On the campaign trail, O’Rourke has acknowledged that previous attempts at immigration reform have failed, but he’s confident that he would be more successful because he could rally public support in a way that former president Barack Obama could not.
“There seems to be among people, regardless of party or geography, a real interest in doing the right thing now for Dreamers. I say that we capitalize on that . . . create the political pressure at the congressional district level to force the kind of change that we’ve been waiting for now more than 30 years,” O’Rourke told reporters in New Hampshire last month. “It cannot simply be a president proposing legislation or making the case nationally.”
Maria Sacchetti contributed to this report.