Presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke offers immigration reform plan

Presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke released a plan Wednesday morning for reforming and rebuilding the country’s immigration system that would reverse many of the actions taken by President Donald Trump and send the message that the United States once again welcomes and celebrates immigrants.

“Running with Beto” captures Beto O’Rourke on the 2018 campaign trail. (Photo:Charlie Gross, HBO via The Washington Post)

“Since the Founding, the compact we made as a nation was to welcome the oppressed, the persecuted, and the hopeful from all over the world because we recognize that immigrants enrich every aspect of our society with their determination and genius,” the plan states. “Each successive generation of Americans has included immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, strengthening this nation that we share.”

O’Rourke’s plan focuses on three broad objectives: Use executive authority to quickly reverse many of Trump’s policies; halt construction of a wall along the southern border; improve the asylum system and protect young undocumented immigrants from deportation. It would push Congress to enact sweeping immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants and a new visa category that would allow communities and religious congregations to sponsor refugees; improve conditions in the Central American countries that migrants are fleeing and invest $5 billion in the Northern Triangle region, which includes Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

The border is a key part of O’Rourke’s identity, as he has spent nearly his entire life living in El Paso, Texas, and he has long opposed militarizing the border, challenged those who describe the border as an unsafe place and urged Americans to treat immigrants and migrants with compassion. But O’Rourke avoided getting involved with attempts at sweeping immigration reform during his six years in the House of Representatives, during which the United States saw a massive influx of Central American asylum seekers and unaccompanied children arriving at the southern border.

Although Trump has made immigration a key part of his presidency, O’Rourke is only the second Democratic presidential candidate to release a formal, detailed plan with alternative ideas. Julián Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio who was a Housing and Urban Development Department secretary under Barack Obama, released a plan nearly two months ago that called for a wholesale rejection of Trump’s approach, while ending criminal penalties for migrants who enter the country illegally and dramatically lessening the use of detention in enforcing immigration laws.

O’Rourke has repeatedly avoided taking a clear position on decriminalizing unauthorized border crossings, but his plan states that detention centers should only be used for “those with criminal backgrounds representing a danger to our communities.”

O’Rourke’s plan – which he is calling “In Our Own Image” – contains many ideas he already regularly talks about on the campaign trail, along with several new ones. In writing it, O’Rourke consulted with immigration lawyers and advocates who are helping to address an influx of the number of migrants in the El Paso area, according to the El Paso Times. O’Rourke said in a tweet that the plan would provide “the most sweeping rewrite of U.S. immigration law in a generation,” and he recently told CNN: “I think we go a lot further than really anyone in this plan.”

In it, O’Rourke takes direct aim at Trump, calling his administration’s policies “cruel and cynical” and accusing the president of “manufacturing crises in our communities” in an effort to divide the country.

If elected president, O’Rourke says that he would immediately reverse several of Trump’s immigration-related executive orders and policies, including those that encourage detention and deportation, deny protection to women and children fleeing domestic violence, and limit the number of migrants who can claim asylum each day.

O’Rourke would then enact several executive orders of his own, including ones that would replace the use of detention with community-based programs and family case management and reinstate an Obama Administration program that reunited children living in Central America with parents living in the United States. O’Rourke also wants to change the “culture and processes for handling asylum claims” by increasing judicial staffing so that asylum seekers can receive decisions more quickly, giving judges more freedom to process cases more effectively, ensuring that asylum seekers understand the process and sending as many as 2,000 lawyers to the border to help with a backlog of cases.

O’Rourke has long said that security along the southern border is excessive and beyond the point of diminishing returns, and his plan promises to “immediately halt work on the border wall” – but also to increase staffing at ports of entry and support legislation that would invest in “smart, long-term border security.” He also promised to “prioritize cracking down on smugglers and traffickers who exploit children and families.

During his first 100 days in office, O’Rourke said that he “will put the full weight of the presidency behind passing legislation” to reform immigration laws. Such legislation would prioritize reuniting families, simplify the naturalization process and create an “earned pathway to citizenship” for 11 million undocumented immigrants and provide a quicker pathway for those who have already been given temporary status through programs like Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

O’Rourke also wants to create a new kind of visa category that would allow communities and religious congregations to sponsor refugees, in addition to increasing the overall number of visas granted and better tracking of visa holders.

Lastly, O’Rourke’s plan calls for a better partnership with countries in the Western Hemisphere to address violence and poverty in the Northern Triangle countries that many migrants are fleeing. That includes investing $5 billion in the region, confronting corruption there, and supporting community-based violence prevention strategies, protecting human rights, growing small-scale farming, improving access to health care and increasing job, training and education opportunities for youth. O’Rourke also called for strengthened asylum and refugee protection systems in Mexico and across the region to better manager the flow of migrants.

On the campaign trail, O’Rourke has acknowledged that previous attempts at immigration reform have failed, but he’s confidant that he would be more successful because he could rally public support in a way that former president Barack Obama could not.

“There seems to be among people, regardless of party or geography, a real interest in doing the right thing now for Dreamers. I say that we capitalize on that . . . create the political pressure at the congressional district level to force the kind of change that we’ve been waiting for now more than 30 years,” O’Rourke told reporters in New Hampshire last month. “It cannot simply be a president proposing legislation or making the case nationally.”

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