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Warren proposes reshaping immigration agencies, decriminalizing border crossings

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)  walks past a detention center where the United States is detaining migrant teens in Homestead, Fla., in June.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) walks past a detention center where the United States is detaining migrant teens in Homestead, Fla., in June. (Daniel A. Varela/AP)
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MILWAUKEE — Sen. Elizabeth Warren on Thursday called for remaking two major 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 (N.J.), 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.

Graphic: We asked 2020 Democrats where they stand on immigration

Much of the Warren proposal is framed as reversing actions taken by Trump.

Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren and six other candidates took the stage to introduce themselves to votes in Miami. (Video: The Washington Post)

“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.

Also Thursday, Castro reiterated his call to eliminate the legal provision that makes crossing the border illegally a criminal offense, saying it should be a civil offense instead. And he took sharp aim at former vice president Joe Biden for disagreeing.

“I saw that Vice President Biden said that he does not want to repeal Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act. It is a mistake for Vice President Biden to take that position,” Castro said at a news conference. “It is clear that between him and me, one of us has learned the lessons of the past and the other hasn’t.”

Biden said recently on CNN that he opposes decriminalizing border crossings, and proposed other measures such as “surging” government personnel to the border to help make immigration decisions.

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.

That includes a pledge to “reshape” U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which have faced scrutiny for their roles in carrying out the president’s immigration agenda. Warren wants the two agencies to focus more directly on security-related functions, including “screening cargo, identifying counterfeit goods, and preventing smuggling and trafficking.”

She also proposed ending the 287(g) and “Secure Communities” programs, which provide for local law enforcement agents to help identify and detain undocumented residents.

Like several other Democratic candidates, Warren would 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.

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.

If the eventual Democratic nominee adopts such immigration policies, it would set up a major political and cultural clash 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.

To fully enact her ideas, Warren would need cooperation from Congress, which for years has been unable to pass a broad immigration plan.

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 Justice Department appoints immigration judges and the attorney general can overturn their rulings, puts too much power in the hands of the executive branch.

Greg Chen, director of government relations at the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said he was especially pleased with that part of Warren’s plan, adding that the idea of creating an independent court system has some bipartisan support.

“What prevents it from happening is, it will cost money,” Chen said. “It will take people rolling up their sleeves to make sure what is really institutional reform is done properly.”

Although most of the plan is framed as a rebuke of Trump, Warren also took a veiled jab at 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.” Castro made a similar point in his remarks.

Biden has faced criticism for touting 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.

Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.