Seeking to burnish his pro-immigrant credentials with Latino voters, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders rolled out a sweeping immigration proposal on Monday that promises to push the boundaries of executive powers.
The plan would expand on executive actions issued by President Barack Obama nearly a year ago that are now on hold due to a legal challenge from Texas and 25 other states.
“Beginning in the first 100 days of my administration, I will work to take extensive executive action to accomplish what Congress has failed to do and to build upon President Obama’s executive orders,” Sanders said in a statement accompanying his proposal Monday.
Obama’s actions would protect more than 4 million immigrants here illegally but who have children who are U.S. citizens or green card holders from being deported, while giving them permits to work legally. The move would also broaden a 2012 directive from Obama that shielded so-called DREAMers from deportation and made greater numbers of young immigrants eligible for the program.
Sanders, who spoke to a Las Vegas forum organized by immigration activists on Monday, pledged to go beyond what Obama did last November. Justice Department officials, however, have previously said what the president did was, essentially, the furthest he could go in terms of acting on his own to halt deportations.
“As president, passing a legislative solution to our broken immigration system will be a top priority,” Sanders said. “But let me be clear: I will not wait around for Congress to act.”
Under Sanders’ plan, all immigrants here illegally but who have been in the United States for at least five years would be eligible for the protections. The campaign did not lay out other requirements, such as background checks, that the immigrants would have to meet in order to get deportation relief.
The Sanders campaign estimated that the executive actions would affect more than 7 million immigrants without legal status in the United States.
“The growth of the immigrant detention and deportation machine and the expansion of militarization on the border has perpetuated unjust policies and resulted in the separation of hundreds of thousands of immigrant families,” Sanders told the Las Vegas immigration forum. “As president, I will work to unite families, not tear them apart.”
The Republican presidential field has pivoted rightward — led by billionaire businessman Donald Trump’s aggressive anti-immigration rhetoric — but the Democratic candidates have also taken increasingly liberal stances on immigration as they court Latino and Asian voters who will be a critical bloc in 2016.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic front-runner, has also spoken extensively about immigration on the campaign trail, including at a roundtable in Nevada in May. She also pledged then to go beyond what Obama did with his executive actions to protect even more immigrants from deportation.
But whether that is legally justifiable is unclear. Clinton and Sanders both promise to protect parents of DREAMers from deportation, but Justice Department officials concluded last year that Obama did not have the legal power to do so. A DOJ memo found that doing so “would not be a permissible exercise of enforcement discretion.”
Meanwhile, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, the third remaining Democratic presidential candidate, has knocked both Clinton and Sanders for not being aggressive enough on immigration. O’Malley, who has struggled to gain traction in the polls, laid out more pro-immigrant proposals last week, and he singled out Sanders for comments that the independent Vermont senator made in 2007 arguing that an influx of less-skilled immigrant workers would drive down wages for native-born Americans.
“When comprehensive immigration reform was up for a vote in the Congress, Senator Sanders went on Lou Dobbs’ show — are you familiar with Lou Dobbs? — and said that immigrants take our jobs and depress our wages,” O’Malley said, according to The Washington Post. “Not only are those statements flat-out wrong, they actually harm the consensus.”
Sanders plans to lay out more specifics of his immigration plan soon. Other planks of his proposal include ending “inhumane” deportation programs and closing down privately run immigrant detention centers while providing more generous asylum relief to domestic violence victims and children from Latin American countries who came here in record numbers during last summer’s crisis at the southern border.
He is also seeking to ensure “mothers and wives who come into the United States with their families have the same right to work as their husbands.” Sanders is likely referring to allowing spouses of immigrants who hold a temporary work visa, such as the H-1B visa, to work.