The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Border surge puts pressure on Democrats to craft their own immigration solutions — not just oppose Trump

Julián Castro, a former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and a Democratic candidate for president, in Austin last month. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro on Tuesday offered a far-reaching plan to remake the nation’s immigration policy, with a new call to end criminal penalties for migrants entering the country without permission and a plan to remove detention as a tool for most immigration enforcement.

Castro’s proposal, the first detailed immigration policy blueprint from any of the Democratic candidates for president, is a clear sign that the party’s leaders will be pressured to move beyond simply condemning President Trump’s policies over the coming months to offer their own detailed solutions to a surging influx of migrant families seeking asylum at the southern border.

Like other candidates, Castro, who is the only Latino in the race, calls for a wholesale rejection of Trump’s approach. But his plan is the first to offer specifics that would amount to a more permissive environment for undocumented immigrants than existed under the Obama administration.

Across the U.S.-Mexico border, Customs and Border Protection agents are grappling with huge numbers of Central America migrants seeking asylum. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post, Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

“My hope is that this presents Americans with a different vision for how we can get this right,” Castro said in an interview with The Washington Post. “There is a better way.”

White House looks to minimize economic impact of Trump’s threatened closure of Mexico border

Democrats have long characterized Trump’s focus on the threat of immigration as immoral and fanciful, dismissing the president when he declared an “invasion of our country” by migrants during the midterm elections and criticizing him for a “manufactured crisis” when he demanded funding for a new border wall. But the recent spike in asylum-seeking families from Central America crossing the border has changed the calculation.

At the same time, Democrats are hoping to refocus the national debate to set conditions for a major immigration overhaul bill after the 2020 elections, potentially providing a path to citizenship for many immigrants in the country illegally and decreasing the number of Central Americans fleeing north. Some Democratic strategists are wary of turning off white voters in swing states of the upper Midwest who Trump has been able to sway with anti-immigration rhetoric.

Castro says his plan is premised on the idea that the southern border is more secure than it has been in decades. The former head of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and mayor of San Antonio would end border wall construction, allow deported veterans who honorably served to return to the United States, increase refu­gee quotas and make it easier for family members to be reunited with relatives who are U.S. residents. He would ask Congress to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in the United States, including young people who received protections under the Obama administration and those covered by the Temporary Protected Status program.

He said he would also create a “21st-century Marshall Plan” for Central America to attack the woeful conditions there, seen as the root cause of the recent increase in asylum seekers. For those who reach the country’s interior, he would reconstitute the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, by reassigning its interior enforcement functions to other agencies, including the Justice Department. He would also re-prioritize Customs and Border Protection efforts to focus on drug and human trafficking instead of interior law enforcement.

By repealing the criminal code that allows the Trump administration to prosecute people who enter the country, Castro would remove the mechanism that previously allowed the administration to separate asylum-seeking parents and children after detention. Trump has since stopped those prosecutions, though single adults continue to face criminal penalties. Castro said he would impose a civil legal process for sorting out refu­gee applications and deportations, with an emphasis on jailing and removing only those with criminal records.

“Unlike this administration, we would prioritize deportation,” Castro said. “Of course we would continue to have the power to deport.”

Trump announced last week that he would stop about $500 million in aid payments to Central American countries and has threatened to close the U.S.-Mexico border, perhaps as early as this week.

The number of people crossing the border has picked up significantly in recent months.

As a result, border facilities have been overwhelmed in recent weeks, with images of children and families being kept in fencing under bridges underscoring the breadth of the growing problem.

House Democratic leaders have been discussing two possible responses to Trump’s latest actions, according to a senior House aide who requested anonymity to speak about internal discussions. One plan would involve new legislation to rescind and re-appropriate money for the Central American countries, with new restrictions that could prevent Trump from diverting the money. That bill, if it passed the Senate, would probably face a veto threat from the White House.

Another possibility discussed by House leaders is to hold a floor vote later this month on a resolution on whether to close the southern border, in an effort to force Republican border-state lawmakers to take a position. No decision has been made on whether to go forward with the vote or, if so, when to hold it.

“The President’s approach is entirely counterproductive,” a group of Democratic leaders including Reps. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) wrote last week. “We will work with our colleagues in Congress to do everything in our power to push back.”

Since Trump took office with an immigration platform that cast migration as a criminal and national security threat, Democrats have been hesitant to put forward their own immigration agenda.

The party’s Senate and congressional candidates mostly steered clear of the issue in the 2018 midterm elections, even as Trump sought to fan fears of a southern invasion. A Gallup poll last fall found that 37 percent of Republican voters thought immigration was the country’s most important problem, compared with 10 percent of Democrats and 18 percent of independents.

Since then, the 2020 presidential candidates have focused their immigration answers on denouncing Trump’s approach — particularly his plan for a new border wall, his child separation policy and his ban on travelers from certain Muslim-majority countries. Several candidates have also called for more foreign aid for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to prevent migrants from heading north.

A shift to more policy specifics has been welcomed by liberal immigration advocates, who hope to separate the current crises of Central American families seeking asylum from the long-standing issue of what to do with the millions of immigrants already living in the country illegally.

“Democrats and advocates have rightly criticized the failed deterrence-only strategy of the Trump administration,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, which supports a path to legalization for those without papers living in the United States. “We would be wise to spell out a practical and workable set of solutions that will contrast what Trump has failed to do with what Democrats promise to do.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) echoed that call in an interview Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” saying he hoped Congress would take action. “Well, you can stop it by overriding what he is doing and making sure that we fund these programs,” Sanders said.

Former vice president Joe Biden, who is considering a presidential campaign launch in the coming weeks, has also signaled that he would make his work in 2014 to improve living conditions in Central America a central part of his message. He helped lead an effort that created new funding that Trump has promised to freeze.

“What we should have done was follow through on this commitment, which was bipartisan,” Biden said at a February event in Philadelphia. “This president came along and essentially let it all blow up.”

Former congressman Beto O’Rourke (D-Tex.), 46, who formally kicked off his candidacy Saturday, also has promised to make immigration central to his campaign, though he has been scant on policy details. After saying in February that he wanted to “take the wall down” on the southern border, he later said he supports barriers in some places.

“If we truly believe that we are a country of immigrants and asylum seekers and refugees and they are the very premise of our strength, of our success and, yes, our security, then let us free every single ‘dreamer’ from any fear of deportation,” O’Rourke said Saturday, referring to people brought to the United States illegally as children or who overstayed their visas as children. “Let’s bring millions more out of the shadows and onto a path to contribute to their maximum potential to the success of this country.”

Castro, 44, the second youthful Texan in the race, echoed the call of returning the country to its more uplifting ideals.

“We see this administration’s approach to immigration is a total failure,” Castro said. “Instead of marching forward with cruelty, I believe we should choose compassion.”