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Bernie Sanders unveils ambitious immigration plan that offers a path for citizenship and dismantles ICE

Senator Bernie Sanders at a town hall at the Wolfeboro Inn in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

WASHINGTON — Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders on Thursday proposed dismantling the federal agency that handles deportations as part of the most ambitious immigration plan yet by a Democratic presidential candidate — and the only one crafted with the guidance of young immigrants at the center of the national debate.

Like other contenders for the party’s 2020 nomination, Sanders would decriminalize border crossings and provide a pathway to citizenship for roughly 11 million people without legal residency in the country. But he also went further, pledging to temporarily halt all deportations, end federal immigration raids and break up two federal agencies, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection, that have been at the forefront of President Trump’s family separation policy.


Denouncing what he called Trump’s demonization of immigrants, Sanders said the immigration proposal was personal because his father “came to America as a refugee without a nickel in his pocket, to escape widespread anti-Semitism and find a better life.”

“When I am in the White House we will stop the hatred towards our immigrant brothers and sisters, end family separation, and locking children up in cages,” he said in a written statement. “We will end the ICE raids that are terrorizing our communities, and on my first day as president, I will use my executive power to protect our immigrant communities and reverse every single horrific action implemented by Trump.”

Immigration has been a fraught topic for a Democratic Party caught in a battle between its moderate and more progressive wings. Presidential candidates initially sought to stay away from the polarized issue, even as public outcry mounted over reports of abuse at immigrant detention centers and the deaths of migrants along the border amid the Trump administration’s crackdown on asylum.

But Julián Castro, the only Latino in the race and grandson of Mexican immigrants, was the first to put out a detailed immigration proposal and set the agenda on the issue when he called to decriminalize illegally entering the United States during the first presidential debates in June.


Nearly all Democratic contenders have come out in favor of the move since, though some political consultants have expressed concern the candidates could risk alienating Republicans fed up with Trump and more moderate general election voters who support strict immigration enforcement.

Sanders’s proposal comes as he has gained Latino support in polls and as immigration has risen to the forefront for many Latino families after the El Paso mass shooting, in which a gunman drove into the city on a self-described quest to kill Mexicans and Mexican immigrants.

Key to drafting Sanders proposal were young Latino immigrants on his staff, including several beneficiaries of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals initiative.

The Obama-era program — rescinded by Trump last year — has provided permits for some 800,000 immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children to work and go to school. The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments next week on a case that could decide the fate of the program.

“We wrote this plan for our immigrant community,” said Belén Sisa, 25, a DACA recipient from Arizona and a press secretary for Sanders’ campaign. “We have been promised immigration reform for far too long, and this plan says we need action now because our community cannot keep suffering.”


Luis Alcauter, 30, a campaign staffer from Fresno, California, who was brought to the country at 13, said he, Sisa and other DACA recipients got involved in drafting Sanders’ proposal organically -- out of concern for themselves and their families.

“I want to make sure that I could continue to contribute to this country that gave me so much, but I also wanted to make sure that we could pursue future opportunities without fear of deportation,” Alcauter said of his efforts to preserve DACA.

In his immigration plan, Sanders pledges to immediately restore the DACA program through executive action, and to look for ways to use executive power to bring back a similar Obama-era program for the parents of DACA recipients that was blocked by the courts.

Sanders also promised to use executive power to provide protection from deportation for any person who has lived, worked and made contributions to the country for the past five years, “even if he has to sign every form by hand.”

His immigration proposal ties in other major parts of his platform, including expanding healthcare, free college tuition and worker protections, and makes them available for all immigrants without lawful residency status in the US.

Like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and others, Sanders said he would reverse Trump administration policies that have banned travel to the United States from several Muslim-majority countries, capped the number of people who can apply for asylum each day, and required migrants to wait in Mexico while their immigration cases are decided.


Sanders also joined in other candidates in promising to stop the construction of a wall along the southern border and to restore US aid to Latin American countries, where extreme poverty, drug war violence and corruption have caused many to flee.

But its immigrant authors said the plan’s most revolutionary measures would place a moratorium on deportations as a Sanders’ overhaul of the immigration system is underway and break up of CBP and ICE, two federal agencies under the Department of Homeland Security that played a crucial role in the separations of migrant children from their families in 2018 at the nation’s southwestern border, spurring #abolishICE protests at agency offices.

Under Sanders’ proposal, the duties of the federal immigration enforcement agencies would be moved to other federal agencies. That would resemble the system before the Department of Homeland Security was formed after the 9/11 terrorism attacks.

Deportations and border enforcement would be under the Department of Justice, the Treasury Department would once again assume authority of customs, the State Department would take over responsibility for naturalization and citizenship.

Basi Alonso, 30-year-old Sanders campaign organizer who helped write the proposal, said the restructuring would return humanity to the immigration system. She was brought to New York when she was three years old from a small town in Puebla, Mexico, after her father, a law student, was kidnapped for his work as a community organizer. Unlike others who disappeared, she said, he was released after her family paid a ransom.


“If he had stayed in Mexico, he probably would have died,” she said, calling the violence a reality for many families making the long and dangerous trek to the US. “What Bernie’s plan says is, ‘We are going to stop deportations to build a system that works for people who want to come to this country and are seeking refuge in this country.’”

Reach Jazmine Ulloa at or on Twitter: @jazmineulloa