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Policy Matters: Where Do the Presidential Candidates Stand on Immigrant Civil Rights?

When we spoke with UNLV Immigration Law Clinic Director Michael Kagan earlier this month, he acknowledged that the Democratic presidential candidates are more likely to talk about immigration reform when they campaign in Nevada. While he was encouraged by the candidates who’ve been talking about immigration, he still wanted to hear them go beyond the national headlines and address what’s happening closer to home.

“I would recommend that candidates talk not just about the border, but also about what’s happening in Spring Valley and in East Las Vegas and in communities across the nation,” Kagan said. So today, we’ll talk about what’s happening in our own communities and examine what these candidates actually plan to do about it.

Prelude: Immigrant communities are already under attack here in Nevada and throughout the nation.
Photo by Andrew Davey

During our conversation with Professor Michael Kagan, we examined the Nevada Legislature’s dropping of the ball on AB 281 to rein in local law enforcement’s knee-jerk deference to ICE hold requests, as well as their possible action on AB 376 to track the number of local police transfers of immigrants into ICE custody. In addition, we spoke about the reasons why these bills were introduced earlier this session.

Some eight months ago we learned the story of Alicia Moya, a Las Vegas resident who was arrested for traffic infractions, then transferred to federal custody when Metro Police honored ICE’s hold request. Then in February we learned the story of Jorge Franco, another Las Vegas resident who was stopped by police for a broken brake light, then transferred to ICE. We know of many more Nevadans who have had similar experiences with local and federal law enforcement, but we still don’t know exactly how many more cases are out here due to Metro’s refusal to release records of booking logs and ICE hold requests. (Metro officials claim that’s because ICE considers these records “confidential”.)

And that’s not all: A year ago, fellow Nevadan Cecilia Gomez had to go to immigration court to stop ICE’s attempts to deport her and break up her family. For nearly a decade, DREAMer activist Astrid Silva has been fighting for her own family and thousands more immigrant families in this state. Whether it’s President Donald Trump’s ongoing war on refugees, Trump’s drive to end DACA and deport DREAMers, or Trump’s insistence upon making the federal bureaucracy even more anti-immigrant in the name of “national security” while far-right militias are running wild at the border, Trump continues to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis he wants to use as an excuse to amass more power for himself. So how exactly will the Democrats challenging Trump not only stop his anti-immigrant crusade, but also provide lasting protection for these and millions more immigrants with undocumented status or legal status that Trump wants to reverse?

“In order to meet the challenge, we must not only expand our political will, but also our moral imagination. […] The truth is, immigrants seeking refuge in our country aren’t a threat to national security. Migration shouldn’t be a criminal justice issue.”
– Julián Castro, in his April 1 Medium post
Photo by Andrew Davey

On Monday, news broke of Carlos Gregorio Vasquez, a 16-year-old Guatemalan refugee, dying while in U.S. custody. He’s the fifth Guatemalan refugee child to die while being detained by federal immigration agents, yet immigrant rights activists fear that these punitive detention camps and other Trump administration anti-immigrant activities are being ignored by many of the presidential candidates in favor of vague calls for “unity” that ring as hollow as the “all lives matter” chants that have been used to delegitimize protests against institutionalized racism. However one candidate has not just been speaking out on these increasingly severe human rights violations, but has also released a full, comprehensive plan to do something about it.

While at the SEIU/CAP Forum here in Las Vegas last month, former San Antonio Mayor and HUD Secretary Julián Castro spoke about his “People First Immigration Plan”. Castro’s plan goes further than the bipartisan 2005-07 and 2013 comprehensive immigration reform plans that past Democratic leaders endorsed in that it decriminalizes undocumented border crossings (and treats such crossings as civil infractions that may still result in deportation), offers a path to citizenship for immigrants with undocumented status and no felony criminal record, reverses Trump’s tightened refugee caps, strengthens labor protections for immigrant workers, and modernizes the visa process to expedite family unification. In addition Castro wants to end enforcement raids targeting community meeting places, restrict immigration detentions to only the “most serious cases”, end 287(g) and hold request arrangements that have local police perform federal immigration enforcement, and pursue the most high-profile goal of the “Abolish ICE” movement by removing “Enforcement and Removal Operations” from ICE’s purview and shifting them to different agencies within the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security along with repurposing U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) on fighting border-related crimes like drug and human trafficking rather than migrant apprehension away from the border.

In an April 1 Medium post explaining his “People First” plan, Castro wrote, “[I]n order to meet the challenge, we must not only expand our political will, but also our moral imagination. We must remember what immigration means to our national identity, and who we want to be as a country.” He later added, “The truth is, immigrants seeking refuge in our country aren’t a threat to national security. Migration shouldn’t be a criminal justice issue.”

“It takes courage. It takes bravery. Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the easy thing to do.”
– Kirsten Gillibrand, in Las Vegas on March 21
Photo by Andrew Davey

At Atomic Liquors on March 21, U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) declared, “We need to be brave enough to take up the fights no one else is willing to take on.” And when she described her vision for a better future, she said, “It takes courage. It takes bravery. Do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s the easy thing to do.”

Earlier that day, Gillibrand visited Kagan and the UNLV Immigration Clinic team and began unveiling her ideas for comprehensive immigration reform. For one, Gillibrand wants to change the immigration court from a court system that’s completely operated by the Department of Justice (including judicial appointments) to an independent judiciary that’s more in line with the U.S. federal court system. Like Castro, Gillibrand also wants to “repeal and replace” Trump’s “zero tolerance” agenda with a more humane legal process for asylum cases. Last year, Gillibrand introduced legislation (that was co-sponsored by fellow 2020 candidate Elizabeth Warren [D-Massachusetts]) to require federal immigration officials to submit reports to Congress documenting all their efforts to stop, search, and interrogate people, akin to the accountability AB 376 calls for here in Nevada. Also last year, Gillibrand was the first of the Senators who’d later announce presidential runs to endorse the “Abolish ICE” movement and call for major restructuring of the immigration enforcement apparatus.

We need to do more than stop President Trump's immoral abuse of immigrants at our border—we need to fix our broken immigration system and create a real path to citizenship. Join our roundtable discussion with Astrid Silva and community leaders in Las Vegas:

Posted by Kirsten Gillibrand on Monday, May 6, 2019

While some activists have expressed concern over Gillibrand’s checkered past on immigrant rights, she’s insisted that what she says now is what she’ll do as president, and she reiterated this when she returned to Southern Nevada earlier this month. That includes deportation relief for immigrants with undocumented status, and that relief includes a path to citizenship that involves these immigrants paying into social safety net programs like Social Security to earn these benefits alongside U.S. citizenship.

“What this President is doing is undermining the safety of local communities by pushing local law enforcement into doing [federal] immigration enforcement.”
– Cory Booker, in Las Vegas on April 18
Photo by Andrew Davey

Long before he announced his presidential campaign, U.S. Senator Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) was already working on civil rights and criminal justice reform policies. Now that he’s running, he’s building a “justice for all” platform that includes immigrant communities.

While campaigning at UNLV last month, Booker addressed our local controversy over Metro Police’s relationship with ICE by condemning the Trump administration’s weaponization of local law enforcement to use against immigrant communities: “What this President is doing is undermining the safety of local communities by pushing local law enforcement into doing [federal] immigration enforcement. What that’s doing is creating an environment where immigrant communities are afraid to come forward to report crimes to police.”

Earlier this month, Booker reintroduced the “PROTECT Immigration Act” that ends the federal government’s ability under 287(g) to deputize local law enforcement to perform federal immigration enforcement functions. (Fellow 2020 candidate Kamala Harris [D-California] is a co-sponsor.) Booker has also called for a reversal of Trump’s refugee caps, and he’s advocating the U.S. being more proactive in working with Central American nations to improve the incredibly difficult conditions that are driving refugees to come here.

What about everyone else?
Photo by Andrew Davey

As they’ve been flying in and out of Nevada, several other Democratic candidates have also spoken about immigration reform. When she was in Las Vegas last month, Elizabeth Warren previewed her subsequent statement in support of Castro’s immigration plan when she declared, “[ICE and CBP] need to be reorganized. It can’t continue [as is] when it can’t tell the difference [between a real threat and a nonexistent threat]. It can’t operate in the same way where it treats children in the same way it treats terrorists and criminals.”

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) has also addressed immigration reform during his visits to Nevada, and he’s even been praised by The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart for proposing a Central American aid package to address the root problem behind Trump’s humanitarian crisis, an idea that Castro, Booker, and Warren have also picked up. On that note, former Vice President Joe Biden penned a Washington Post op-ed last June defending former President Barack Obama’s Central American aid package and condemning Trump’s moves to undo it. Earlier this month in Henderson, Biden was forced to address immigration reform when confronted by local activist Cesar Lopez, and he answered Lopez’s question on military veterans when he declared, “Anybody who fought for the United States of America should not be deported!”

Photo by Andrew Davey

So far this year, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) has leaned into his own family’s immigrant history and promised humane immigration reform will be part of his “political revolution”. Yet in 2007 Sanders led the charge on the left to kill the aforementioned bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill, and his recent comments on “open borders” have renewed concerns among some progressives that his “political revolution” is heading into “all lives matter” territory (again). Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-California) has also faced some blowback over his voting record, more specifically his vote for a “tough on crime” bill in 2017 that could have aided and abetted Trump’s deportation regime.

I hope you’ve appreciated this series thus far. Considering the increasingly hellish national media landscape out there, we want to do our part here to help shine a light on the real issues that real voters want to know more about. Feel free to peruse our growing “Policy Matters” archive now, and stay tuned for more timely stories on more important issues in the coming days and weeks.

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