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Elizabeth Warren unveils sweeping immigration plan to reverse Trump’s ‘policy of cruelty and division’

Elizabeth Warren, shown Wednesday on Capitol Hill, said she would reverse Trump administration policies, including the crackdown on those seeking asylum.Susan Walsh/Associated Press/Associated Press

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on Thursday unveiled a sweeping plan to reshape the nation’s immigration system, proposing to significantly expand opportunities for migrants and refugees to come to the United States while taking steps to protect them and provide a path to citizenship for undocumented people already here.

Calling President Trump’s aggressive actions on the issue “a policy of cruelty and division,” Warren said she would, among other things, decriminalize border crossings, raise the annual cap on refugees, establish a federal task force to investigate claims of abuse against immigrant detainees by the Trump administration, and create a national corps of public defenders to provide counsel for immigrants fighting deportation.


“We must address the humanitarian mess at the border and reverse this president’s discriminatory policies,” Warren wrote in a post on the Medium website announcing the plan.

“But that won’t be enough to fix our immigration system,” she said. “We need expanded legal immigration that will grow our economy, reunite families, and meet our labor market demands. We need real reform that provides cost-effective security at our borders, addresses the root causes of migration, and provides a path to citizenship so that our neighbors don’t live in fear.”

The Massachusetts senator is the latest candidate in the large Democratic field to put forth a detailed immigration proposal, as public outcry has erupted over reports of abuse and overcrowding at immigrant detention centers, a culture of racism and sexism within the US Border Patrol, and the deaths of migrants along the border amid the Trump administration’s crackdown on asylum.

It is also the latest detailed — and expensive — policy proposal from Warren, who has risen in the polls in recent weeks.

The issue took on new resonance Thursday amid reports that nationwide immigration raids, which Trump initially called for last month and then abruptly canceled, are scheduled to begin Sunday.


Warren released her plan ahead of an appearance at a community town hall event in Milwaukee on Thursday hosted by the League of United Latin American Citizens, a Latino civil rights organization, and the Spanish-language network Univision.

Immigrant rights activists and Democratic Latino political leaders called her plan one of the most comprehensive yet in the campaign. Many of them have criticized their party’s presidential candidates for failing to prioritize immigration even as the issue has risen to the top tier of voter concerns and is expected to be central to Trump’s reelection campaign.

“The thing her platform says the most to me is that she has done what the movement has asked: she has stepped away from the old framework,” said Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy, a progressive advocacy organization.

Warren’s immigration proposals build on those of former US housing secretary Julián Castro and former congressman Beto O’Rourke, two Texas politicians who were the first Democratic presidential candidates to seize on the issue.

She would reverse Trump administration policies that have banned travel to the United States from several Muslim-majority countries, limited the number of people who can apply for asylum each day, and required migrants to wait in Mexico while their immigration cases are decided.

And Warren’s plan would immediately reinstate an Obama-era program granting temporary permits for approximately 800,000 young people known as “Dreamers” who were brought into the country illegally — and expand it. She also promised to expand legal immigration programs and to raise the annual cap on refugees allowed to enter the country to 125,000 in her first year as president, increasing that number to at least 175,000 by the end of her first term.


Trump administration officials in September lowered the refugee cap to 30,000 people for the current fiscal year, with the United States on pace to admit a historic low of 22,000 last year.

Immigration will probably be a focal point of the 2020 presidential campaign after Trump made it a signature issue in 2016, referring to Mexicans as criminals and calling for building of a wall along the nation’s southern border as he paved his way to the White House.

But the issue has been a thorny one as both parties have failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in recent years. The last three presidents before Trump — Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama — helped expand a detention and deportation system that became increasingly intertwined with the criminal justice system.

Five 2020 Democratic candidates have released detailed immigration plans, while several others, including Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, and Kirsten Gillibrand, have partially addressed the issue on their websites or have spoken out on their views.

Warren began pushing the issue last month when she appeared at a national convention for Latino elected officials in Miami ahead of the first presidential debates there. She called for the end of immigration detention centers run by private companies, saying she had a plan to “push the private profits out of the incarceration system,” and “that means both in our criminal justice system and in our immigration system.”


A few days later, she was one of several Democratic presidential candidates to stop at the Homestead immigrant detention center, a privately operated and unlicensed shelter 30 miles south of Miami that was held up as a symbol of the Trump administration’s mistreatment of immigrants.

Her plan to end private prisons more broadly did not explicitly extend to contracts given to the federal Department of Health and Human Services, which is responsible for all minors who cross into the United States alone, nor did it address the fate of children kept at not-for-profit shelters.

But in her immigration plan released Thursday, Warren pledged to expand community alternatives to detention and to issue guidance to federal agencies to ensure detention is only used for people who pose a risk of not appearing in immigration court or are deemed a danger to the public.

She also embraced a far-reaching proposal first made by Castro to decriminalize illegal border crossings through the repeal of an immigration statute that upgraded the penalty for crossing the border illegally from a civil offense to a criminal one. The section of the law, adopted in 1929, has been used by the Trump administration to justify the separation of families at the nation’s southwestern border.


Warren also promised to reduce criminal prosecutions of immigrants, reshape the culture and priorities of federal immigration agencies, increase oversight, and disentangle law enforcement and the courts from immigration enforcement. Her plan would end an Obama-era program that allows partnerships between federal immigration authorities and local and state policing agencies, and would return autonomy to judges reviewing immigration cases.

Like other presidential candidates, she promised to create an Office of New Americans to provide English, civics, and job training for new immigrants. And Warren called to restore aid to El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala — countries that many migrants are fleeing — committing $1.5 billion annually to fund programs targeting crime, drug and human trafficking, sexual violence, and poverty.

“Donald Trump wants to divide us — to pit worker against worker, neighbor against neighbor,” she said. “We can be better than this.”

Jazmine Ulloa can be reached at jazmine.ulloa@globe.com or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa.