The Immigration Issues That Democratic Presidential Candidates Should Tackle

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a ‘Women for Hillary’ grassroots organizing meeting Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JAY LAPRETE
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks at a ‘Women for Hillary’ grassroots organizing meeting Thursday, Sept. 10, 2015, in Columbus, Ohio. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JAY LAPRETE

On Tuesday night, when Democratic presidential candidates take the stage for their first debate, they likely won’t touch the topic of immigration in the same blistering way as their Republican opponents have. There probably won’t be mentions of undocumented immigrants as potential criminals, “anchor babies,” and poor English language speakers. Instead, Democratic candidates will likely call for legal status (or citizenship) for the country’s 11.3 million undocumented immigrants.

Nonetheless, immigration reform advocates are still hoping to hear some policy proposals from Democrats. Aside from a path to citizenship, there are still issues need to be addressed among the immigrant community. Here are some issues that candidates could commit to tackling:

Immigration raids go after immigrants with minor infractions or old crimes.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew
CREDIT: AP Photo/Richard Drew

In late September, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency arrested 314 immigrants in Florida, all of whom “met at least one of the agency’s three enforcement priorities,” according to a press release. One-quarter of those people caught had criminal records that included felony convictions for serious or violent offenses, like murder, attempted murder, child sex crimes, sex offenses, weapons charges, and drug violations. Charges against the other immigrants weren’t listed.

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But with ICE’s track record of detaining immigrants with minor offenses, it’s possible that some of the immigrants already served prison sentences for crimes committed years ago and have since turned their lives around.

That happened in March, when ICE conducted a raid and arrested 912 immigrants with DUI convictions. The agency deported Max Villatoro, a beloved pastor at a Mennonite Church in Iowa, who was convicted of drunken driving in 1998 and pleaded guilty in 1999 to record tampering for buying a Social Security number, which was then used to get a driver’s license. And Christian Hervis-Vazquez, a father of three small U.S. citizen children, was deported to Mexico in August after ICE officials took him in for a DUI conviction from 2010.

Still, an Immigration Policy Council report found last year that ICE mostly deported immigrants who posed “a threat to no one.”

The government pays private prison-operated facilities to detain immigrants.

A phone sits on a table in a visitation room at the Karnes County Residential Center, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Karnes City, Texas. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay
A phone sits on a table in a visitation room at the Karnes County Residential Center, Thursday, July 31, 2014, in Karnes City, Texas. CREDIT: AP Photo/Eric Gay

About 23,000 immigrants are held every night in private prisons to await deportation proceedings, while the government has allotted enough budgetary spending to keep upwards of 31,000 people in immigration detention facilities for the 2015 fiscal year. The government pays private prison operators an average of $160 per day per detainee, for a total of $2 billion a year.

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Private prison operators likely don’t use the money to improve conditions in their facilities. Immigrants in both adult and family detention facilities have all complained of inadequate medical are, bad food, and even assaults.

I think there should be a conversation about what the end of private prison detention looks like.

At least one Democratic frontrunner is taking heat over this issue. Last week, an undocumented immigrant shouted “my deportation will be your funding” at a function with Hillary Clinton, who receives donations from the Corrections Corporation of America and The Geo Group, two of the largest private prison operators of immigrant detention facilities nationwide.

“I think there should be a conversation about what the end of private prison detention looks like,” Juan Escalante, Digital Campaigns Manager at the immigrant-advocacy group America’s Voice, told ThinkProgress. “I would like to see a timetable as to how some of the policies that they’re proposing in terms of immigration will be achieved with a Republican Congress. We keep talking about who the nominees will be at the presidential level, but we need to remember that we still have congressional and senatorial seats up in 2016 as well, so what would it look like to have a Democratic president work with a Republican congress in order to achieve immigration reform?”

Lawmakers want to roll back ‘sanctuary cities.’

Sen David Vitter (R-LA) CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
Sen David Vitter (R-LA) CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

Next week, Senate Republicans will take up a bill sponsored by Sen. David Vitter (R-LA) to block federal funding for so-called “sanctuary cities,” where local law enforcement officials can choose not to turn criminal immigrants over to federal immigration authorities for potential deportation proceedings. House Republicans already voted through a bill earlier this year that would restrict federal funding to these cities.

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The bill has gained traction in the wake of a San Francisco woman’s murder by an undocumented immigrant earlier this year. But studies have shown that public safety could go down when localities and states allow local police departments to go after immigrants.

Community trust is essential for public safety for the entire community.

A 2013 University of Illinois at Chicago study found in four major cities — Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston — 70 percent of undocumented Latino immigrants indicated that they were less likely to contact police if they were victims or witnesses to crimes. That’s because they “fear that police officers will use this interaction as an opportunity to inquire into their immigration status or that of people they know.”

“Community trust is essential for public safety for the entire community,” Grace Meng, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told ThinkProgress in July.

Undocumented immigrants could become unemployed after President Obama leaves office in January 2017.

Immigrant Jose Montes attends an event on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, DAPA, part of the immigration relief program, downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut
Immigrant Jose Montes attends an event on Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, DACA and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability, DAPA, part of the immigration relief program, downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, Feb. 17, 2015. CREDIT: AP Photo/Nick Ut

Since 2012, more than 680,000 undocumented immigrants were granted the ability to work and pay taxes into the U.S. economy under Obama’s executive action known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Numerous Republican presidential candidates have said that they would take away the program if elected president, leaving many immigrants nervous about the program’s longevity. And a lawsuit upheld by a Texas judge has prevented the expansion of the DACA program to cover other undocumented immigrants and a similar program called the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), which would have shielded undocumented parents of U.S.-citizen children from deportation.

We could potentially see a termination of the DACA program.

“We could potentially see a termination of the DACA program, so to me the future seems unclear unless we see a complete 180 from the Republican party,” Escalante, a DACA beneficiary, said. “It’s worrisome that they’re pledging to undo a program that has such an impactful benefit on many people like myself. You’re talking about people that are able to go to school, able to go to work, continue to pay taxes, provide for our families, and have opportunities that were not afforded to them in the past.”

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“How would they make executive actions like DAPA a reality, especially in light of the lawsuit blocking its implementation?” Bertha Sanles, a non-citizen with the immigrant advocacy group United Families in Florida, said in a press release. “Are they willing to commit to do everything in their power to stop the deportation of people like me?”

Immigrants are still getting exploited by employers.

CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher
CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher

Ahead of the Democratic presidential debate, employees protested outside the Trump Tower in Las Vegas, Nevada, stating that they are “being suspended or fired when they try to organize for better pay, health benefits, pensions, and contracts,” according to a local ABC affiliate.

On average, undocumented immigrants earn about 20 percent less than legal immigrants and 13 percent less than temporary workers, according to a 2014 study. But immigrants are especially susceptible to exploitation because employers could use the threat of deportation to keep them silent.