As President Donald Trump continues to use his anti-immigrant regime to ramp up his 2020 reelection campaign, some of the 20+ Democrats running against him are not just stating their opposition to his agenda, but also explaining how they’ll reform and restructure America’s immigration system going forward.
This week, it’s U.S. Senator Kamala Harris’ (D-California) turn to explain how she will reverse Trump’s actions and respect immigrants’ civil rights. And today, Harris returned to Nevada to speak with community leaders on the front line about how she will make this happen. Oh, and she also made time to march with Fight for 15 activists outside a local McDonald’s to address another of the great civil rights movements of our time.
So what exactly is Kamala Harris’ new immigration plan, and how will it help DREAMers and their families?
Last month, we took a closer look at where the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates stand on immigrant rights. Five weeks ago former San Antonio Mayor and federal HUD Secretary Julián Castro, and U.S. Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-New York) and Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) were the only candidates to have anything approaching full comprehensive immigration reform plans. Castro’s has the most details, including decriminalizing undocumented border crossings, a path to citizenship for immigrants with no felony criminal record, ending the federal government’s practice of pushing local law enforcement to perform federal immigration enforcement functions, and restructuring ICE and Border Patrol to shift them away from heavy-handed immigration raids and toward more targeted actions on higher-priority crimes. Booker and Gillibrand have also promised major restructuring of the federal immigration enforcement apparatus and a fairer process for refugees seeking legal asylum.
Earlier this week, Kamala Harris released her own immigration reform plan. While Castro, Gillibrand, and Booker are relying more upon legislation that they want Congress to pass, Harris is following the same blueprint she used to develop her reproductive rights protection plan in relying more on executive action to make things happen.
Harris plans to fully reinstate the DACA program to protect qualifying DREAMers that Trump has been trying to abolish since 2017. (It’s currently open for DREAMers who already registered before Trump moved to rescind then President Barack Obama’s 2012 order to establish DACA.) Harris also wants to expand DACA by eliminating the requirement that DREAMers apply before they turn 31, offer deportation relief for parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents, and revise the federal government’s official interpretation of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) in order to establish a “Parole-in-Place program” akin to existing programs to assist families of military servicemembers and Haiti earthquake survivors to allow DREAMers to obtain green cards and become eligible for U.S. citizenship. Far-right, anti-immigration activists are already threatening lawsuits if Harris or another Democratic president takes this kind of executive action, but various legal experts have already pointed to the U.S. Supreme Court’s pattern of deferring to executive authority on immigration enforcement in voicing cautious optimism such a plan will withstand judicial scrutiny.
“We have got to fix this. Here in Nevada, we have 64,000 immigrants. Nationwide, there are 2.1 million immigrants who have lived a lawful and productive life.”
– Kamala Harris
After an introduction from UNLV Immigration Law Clinic Director Michael Kagan, Harris condemned the current state of affairs and promised swift change. “These are human rights abuses being committed by the United States government, and this must end,” she declared. She promised to pursue legislative immigration reform, as Castro, Gillibrand, Booker, and a few other Democratic candidates have promised, but she added, “Until that is done, I am prepared to take executive action on a number of issues.”
On the barriers to legal status that Trump is trying to raise for DREAMers currently covered by DACA, Harris stated, “These are artificial barriers that should not be in the way of people who have otherwise lived lawful and productive lives.” And when asked by UNLV Boyd Law student and DREAMer activist Cristian Gonzalez Perez how she’ll respond to the inevitable lawsuits from the anti-immigrant far-right, she reminded the audience, “Let’s look at the current status of DACA. There is a stay on the attempts to get rid of it.”
Harris then exclaimed, “We have got to fix this. Here in Nevada, we have 64,000 immigrants. Nationwide, there are 2.1 million immigrants who have lived a lawful and productive life.”
“I do not support any policy that criminalizes children, including undocumented children who are targeted due to their status.”
– Kamala Harris
On Trump’s overall anti-immigrant regime, Harris condemned the “unilateral action by this President because he wants to vilify immigrants.” She then added, “He wants this vanity project he calls a wall, which by the way, will never get built. This is a distraction, I believe, from a President who has done nothing to protect working people. The problem is this President has no plans for anyone other than himself.”
While the roundtable panelists and the larger audience often seemed satisfied with Harris’ present statements of support for immigrant rights, some wanted answers about her past. When asked about ICE’s “Secure Communities” program that was launched by then President George W. Bush, then temporarily expanded by Obama before he dropped the program, only to be revived when Trump took office, Harris promised she will finally end it once and for all as she stated, “I found they were apprehending people who were not meeting ICE’s own criminal definitions.”
A local ACLU activist then asked about Harris’ past support for a San Francisco ordinance when she was District Attorney there, an ordinance that established an exemption in its “Sanctuary City” law to hand over to federal authorities immigrant minors who were arrested by local police. She seemed to pass that buck over to then San Francisco Mayor (now California Governor) Gavin Newsom (D) for pursuing that policy (which was dropped after he left City Hall and was elected as California’s Lt. Governor in 2011), then declared, “I do not support any policy that criminalizes children, including undocumented children who are targeted due to their status.”
“Every day in the life of the people we’re talking about is a very long day. Every day when a child is sitting in a cage, that is a very long day. This is about real people.”
– Kamala Harris
A couple of the roundtable participants, such as Cristian Gonzalez Perez and PLAN Action’s Erika Castro, asked about what Harris will do beyond DACA. Harris promised to do more to keep immigrant families together, including households with TPS refugees and other vulnerable refugees seeking asylum.
Harris promised, “What I’m preparing to do with executive action, that is what I will require as part of any comprehensive immigration reform plan.” And when asked when she’ll begin issuing her executive orders, Harris replied, “Immediately. First day.”
So were they into what Harris had to offer? After the program, I spoke with two activists: Erika Castro, and Elisa Martinez, a 13-year-old activist who came with her mom seeking answers. Castro voiced appreciation for Harris answering the questions from the roundtable, and encouraged the other candidates to step up and do more to engage Nevada’s immigrant communities. Martinez was at least open to accepting Harris’ answer to her question on abolishing ICE (reform and restructure it, possibly along the lines of the “significant reorganization” Senator Elizabeth Warren [D-Massachusetts] has endorsed), but she still wants Harris and the other Democratic candidates to push for more.
Back to Kamala Harris herself, she closed the UNLV event on these notes: “Every day in the life of the people we’re talking about is a very long day. Every day when a child is sitting in a cage, that is a very long day. This is about real people. There are mothers who have exposed to incredibly violence and trauma who need to be treated like real people, not criminals.” And once more, with feeling, on Trump, she said, “These policies are not reflective of who we are as a people. We are a nation of immigrants.”
“We have got to recognize that these working people deserve livable wages. These working people deserve to know they have a safe working environment, knowing they will be safe from any kind of physical harm and sexual abuse.”
– Kamala Harris
Shortly after the UNLV immigration roundtable, Kamala Harris ventured a few blocks east to the McDonald’s near Eastern and Flamingo. Here, McDonald’s workers walked out and Fight for 15 activists joined them to demand living wages and better working conditions. Harris met them at the parking lot for the nearby Mariana’s Supermarket, then they all marched over to McDonald’s.
Here, Harris got personal: “So let’s talk about McDonald’s. I worked at McDonald’s. I did the french fries, and I did the ice cream. When I worked at McDonald’s, I was a student. There was no family relying on me to pay the rent, put food on the table, and keep the bills paid by the end of the month.”
Harris went on to say, “The reality of McDonald’s is the majority of folks working at McDonald’s today are relying on that income to sustain a household and a family. And if we want to talk about these golden arches being a symbol of the best of America… Well, the arches are falling short.” She continued, “We have got to recognize that these working people deserve livable wages. These working people deserve to know they have a safe working environment, knowing they will be safe from any kind of physical harm and sexual abuse.”
“Look, I wouldn’t be standing here today if people didn’t shout for equality, for freedom, and for justice. I am so proud to stand here with the people who are shouting for justice every day!”
– Kamala Harris
Just as Harris encouraged the immigrant rights activists at UNLV to keep up the good work, she did the same outside McDonald’s: “This is the right of the people to organize, and to march, and to shout for the dignity of working people.” She soon added, “Look, I wouldn’t be standing here today if people didn’t shout for equality, for freedom, and for justice. I am so proud to stand here with the people who are shouting for justice every day!”
Harris concluded, “Sometimes, that’s the only way we gain progress. If we have to fight for it, if we have to march and shout for it, if we have to let people know we are not going to stand for it until we get freedom and equality and fairness and livable wages, we’ll fight and shout for the people and for justice and for the fight for 15!”
Next week, you’ll hear from a couple of those very McDonald’s workers who had plenty to say about Harris, her fellow 2020 Democratic candidates, what certain Nevada Democrats did (and did not do) closer to home, and what we all need to know about what they’re dealing with. But in the meantime, they and the other activists outside McDonald’s and at UNLV welcomed Harris to the beautiful struggle for freedom, equality, and justice. Let’s see who else may accept their invitation when they come back to campaign.