Speaking at a round table with individuals personally affected by the immigration system at Rancho High School in Nevada, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton called for granting “full and equal citizenship” to undocumented immigrants; extending an existing executive action that provides deportation protections to so-called DREAMers, or undocumented immigrants, giving legal representation to immigrants in immigration court; and reforming immigration enforcement and detention practices “so they’re more humane, more targeted, and more effective.”
“We can’t wait any longer, we can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship,” Clinton said Tuesday. “Now, this is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side. Make no mistake: Today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one. When they talk about ‘legal status,’ that’s code for ‘second-class status.'”
While specific details about Clinton’s broad plan for immigration reform remain unknown, she hit many points that the immigrant community has expressed concern over for a much-needed fix.
Here’s a look at why some of Clinton’s proposed issues are so important to the immigrant community:
1. Taking executive action for parents of DREAMers. Clinton drew particular attention to a group of undocumented immigrants for whom she would take presidential action if Congress didn’t pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes deportation relief. She said that she would “do everything possible under the law to go even further” for “many parents of DREAMers and others with deep ties and contributions to our communities – who deserve a chance to stay. I’ll fight for them too.”
When Obama proposed expanding executive action to about five million undocumented immigrants in November 2014, he left out the parents of DREAMers because the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) believed that extending relief to these immigrants would not be legal. A senior Obama administration official told ThinkProgress at the time that the president decided not to act on behalf of the parents of DREAMers because “it was something we consulted with the Department of Justice very closely and we ultimately concluded we couldn’t do it.” Nevertheless, there are strong legal arguments supporting the view that the Obama administration as too timid, and that extending relief to the parents of DREAMers would fit within the “broad discretion” the Supreme Court says that the executive branch enjoys on matters related to immigration and deportation.
It’s also unclear whether such an executive action would also be blocked if Clinton is elected president since Obama’s expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and another similar Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA) program are currently tied up in a multistate lawsuit.
2. Reducing the number of children, LGBT individuals, and other vulnerable people in detention facilities. “I’m very worried about detention, and detention facilities for people who are vulnerable and for children that I think we could do a better job if we kept attention to the people who have a record of violent, illegal behavior and that we have a different approach towards people who are not in that category,” Clinton said.
Although it’s difficult to categorically prevent some vulnerable individuals from winding up in detention centers, Clinton’s approach to detention could be focused more on the alternatives that are available to ensure that immigrants will show up at immigration court hearings. Alternatives such ankle bracelets, personal and telephonic reporting, or required check-ins with supervision officers have proven successful and cost-efficient. In fact, the Vera Institute of Justice reported a 93 percent appearance rate for immigrants who were required to check-in.
Across various immigration detention centers, many immigrants are denied bond based on a 2003 ruling in which former Attorney General John Ashcroft argued against granting bond to a Haitian immigrant because it would encourage future illegal entries. At one detention center, some migrant mothers and children, who were escaping violence and poverty in Latin America, were allegedly put in a dark room for protesting detention conditions.
LGBT immigrant detainees are especially at risk for sexual assault in detention centers. And transgender immigrants are kept in “administrative segregation,” more commonly known as solitary confinement, for periods up to six months at a time. According to a Center for American Progress report, “The purported rationale for placing LGBT immigrants in solitary confinement is to protect them from the general detainee population. LGBT immigrants in immigration detention facilities are at increased risk of verbal abuse, sexual assault, and physical assault.”
“The most common grievances from people in immigration detention across the country include inadequate access to medical and mental health care as well as physical, sexual, and verbal abuse,” Christina Fialho, the co-executive director of CIVIC told ThinkProgress. “Besides lack of appropriate care, these prisons cost taxpayers over 5 million dollars each day, while community-based alternatives to detention run by nonprofit organizations are far less costly. Ms. Clinton should focus on defunding detention and increasing funding to true community alternatives to detention.”
3. Reforming ‘bed mandate quotas.’ “A lot of detention facilities for immigrants are run by private companies and they have a built-in incentive to fill them up,” Clinton remarked. “People go out and round up people in order to get paid on a per-bed basis. That just doesn’t make sense to me. That’s not any way we should run a detention facility.”
The Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency detains about 34,000 people per day in detention facilities. Provisions in this budget have long been referred to as an “immigrant detention quota” and “bed mandate” on the rationale that they require a certain number of immigrants be detained at any given time. “Defenders of the bed mandate say it remains a useful tool to compel ICE to devote the maximum amount of resources to catching and deporting illegal migrants and foreign-born legal residents who commit crimes, including dangerous gang members, rapists and other violent felons,” the Washington Post reported in 2013. A record number of immigrants have been kept in detention, but the majority are not violent offenders.
While Congress is responsible for setting the bed mandate, Clinton could likely implement less restrictive ways to hold immigrants by using detention as a last alternative, which would be aligned with her recent call to end mass incarceration.
To be fair, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson once stated that the bed mandate wasn’t meant to set a quota to fill detention centers. Still, the Obama administration adopted an “aggressive deterrence strategy” to lock up women and their children in detention under a “no release” policy as a way to deter future migrants from making the trek.
Immigrant activists were excited by Clinton’s far-reaching immigration plans. Blanca Gamez, a 25-year old DREAMer who was one of the individuals at the round table told ThinkProgress Wednesday that she was pleased with Clinton’s remarks. “I was very surprised by Secretary Clinton’s remarks. She completely threw me off when she started talking about detention centers and LGBT detainees. … It made me feel like, ‘wow, this is a candidate that would carry out what I want implemented.”
“The biggest thing for me was that she recognized that the three to ten-year bar was a barrier for me,” Gamez said, referring to the number of years that immigrants face not being able to reenter the United States when they violate immigration laws. “This was the first time someone asked me about it. … [Immigration] has been a hot topic since former President] George W. Bush and nothing has happened.”
“Thrilled” by Clinton’s speech, DREAMer activist Monica Reyes stated in a press release that she and other immigrant advocates would hold Clinton “accountable to the high standards she has set for herself. This is a great political move, but it has a real human cost if not taken seriously.”