Where December Democratic debate candidates stand on immigration

U.S. Border Patrol agents hold a man from Mexico and a 15-year-old from Honduras near Calexico, Calif., in January.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Immigration has been a hallmark issue for President Trump since the day he announced his bid for office in 2015, and it continues to animate his base of supporters. It has also been a primary source of conflict with Democrats, with issues such as the Muslim travel plan, the fate of “Dreamers” and family separation at the border leading to pitched legal battles.

The 2020 Democratic candidates are vocally united in opposition to the president’s immigration rhetoric and have pledged to overturn his administration’s policies, with Congress or through executive order. They agree on the broad strokes of immigration reform, such as creating a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally, ending family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border and increasing foreign aid to Central America to reduce root causes for the flow of asylum seekers.

But there are some policy differences, including whether unauthorized border crossings should be decriminalized and what compromises candidates would be willing to make to expedite a path to citizenship for Dreamers, young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children.


Here is where the seven candidates who qualified for the December Democratic debate stand on immigration issues:


Joe Biden

Former Vice President Joe Biden has said the nation’s immigration system is broken but can be fixed without sacrificing America’s values.

He supports providing healthcare and creating a pathway to citizenship for all who are in the country illegally and increasing the annual cap on refugees allowed into the United States to 125,000. He proposes allowing local governments to petition for new immigration visas to support economic growth if there are not enough local workers to fill jobs.

Biden is a vocal critic of Trump’s call to add to the border wall, but as a senator representing Delaware he voted to fund wall construction, and last year, he said he would support some new funding as part of a deal to provide citizenship to Dreamers.

In contrast with some of his rivals, Biden would not decriminalize unauthorized border crossings or abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He has also faced criticism from immigrant rights activists over the record level of deportations during President Obama’s administration. His campaign has said he “understands the pain felt by every family across the U.S. that has had a loved one removed from the country, including under the Obama-Biden administration.”


Asylum seekers
Hundreds of migrants seeking asylum are held in a temporary transition area in El Paso in March.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Pete Buttigieg

South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has been a vocal critic of the Trump administration’s family separation policy and decision to send U.S. troops to the border with Mexico.


Buttigieg would allow people in the country illegally to buy into his healthcare plan, but they would not qualify for subsidies. He has said he would decriminalize border crossings, making them a civil offense except in cases of fraud or human trafficking.

The former McKinsey & Co. consultant at times takes a research-based approach when asked about details. He supports extending barriers at the border if experts recommend doing so; he doesn’t support abolishing ICE but wants to do a comprehensive review to determine how it should be restructured.


Asylum seekers
Salvadorans Maria José Quesada, 12, left, and mother Claudia Veronica Quesada Rodriguez wait near the borderin Matamoros, Mexico, for their first asylum court hearing on Dec. 4. Their hearing was rescheduled for March 2020 because Maria has the flu.
(Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Amy Klobuchar

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar has tried to position herself as a moderate alternative who can appeal to all parts of the country, not just liberal bastions, and her immigration proposals show this centrism.

Klobuchar has pledged that if she is elected president, within 100 days of taking office she would start negotiating comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship, with the goal of passing it within one year.

But she does not support decriminalizing border crossing, and would provide immediate medical care rather than broad access to healthcare for those in the country illegally.


Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders’ campaign includes three Dreamers who helped shape his immigration policy.

If elected, the Vermont senator would institute an immediate moratorium on deportations and would seek to provide legal status and a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally in the first 100 days of his administration.

Sanders has said he does not believe the United States needs a border wall, though he did vote for some funding as part of a bill to avoid a government shutdown. He proposes restructuring the Department of Homeland Security, including breaking up ICE and Customs and Border Patrol and redistributing their authority to other departments.

Along with providing a pathway to citizenship for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals recipients, Sanders would aim to expand the program that protects their parents. His “Medicare for all” plan would cover residents in the country illegally.


Asylum seekers
A group of about 50 men, women and children are led to a holding area in El Paso after they crossed into the U.S. to seek asylum on June 19.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Tom Steyer

Billionaire hedge-fund manager turned environmental activist Tom Steyer has used his wealth to support liberal immigration policies, people in the country illegally and asylum seekers.

He opposes any extension of the border wall, would restructure ICE and would decriminalize border crossings.

Steyer supports creating a pathway to citizenship and says he would use executive action to give Dreamers legal residency if Congress does not act. He also says he would “reinvigorate” the visa system to attract schools and businesses to the U.S.


Elizabeth Warren

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has called for an expansion of legal immigration to boost the economy and reunite families.

She proposes raising the age limit for those eligible for DACA and increasing the number of refugees allowed into the United States annually to 175,000 by the end of her first term.

She would also end detention along the southern border, decriminalize illegal border crossings and provide healthcare coverage to those in the country illegally. Warren would also redirect Homeland Security efforts on the border to preventing smuggling and trafficking.

She also proposes creating an “Office of New Americans” to help immigrants transitioning into the U.S., including offering English, civics and employment classes.


Andrew Yang

Businessman Andrew Yang supports most conventional Democratic immigration policy, but he has two positions that differentiate him from his rivals.

He would seek to provide a path to citizenship to those in the country illegally, but he says it should take longer than the normal process to reflect that they did not follow the law.

Immigrants in the country illegally would be granted legal residency and could gain citizenship after 18 years if they pay taxes and have no felony record. Yang would allow those applying for citizenship access to healthcare for an additional cost. Those who do not sign onto this process would be deported.

Yang’s signature universal basic income proposal of $1,000 per month is limited to U.S. citizens.