Doyle McManus: It's Democrats' time to tell what they'd do to solve asylum

Published April 11, 2019

Democrats have long railed at President Trump for an immigration crackdown they consider cruel and misguided. Now Trump has handed them a new argument: His policies aren't merely inhumane, they're chaotic — and counterproductive, too.

The president has tried every draconian measure he and his hard-line aides could come up with, but none of it has stopped Central Americans from grabbing their children and fleeing north.

He's detained migrants in freezing cells and makeshift camps, separated toddlers from their parents, forced asylum seekers to remain in Mexico. Still they come, overwhelming an immigration system that wasn't designed to handle a flood of families.

That's where Democrats have an opening to use immigration against Trump.

The president has tried to blame the border chaos on Congress, on "Democrat judges," and even on his own aides — for not being tough enough. But he's in charge. After two years in office, if his policies aren't working or can't pass legal muster, it's on him.

Plenty of Democrats already blame Trump, of course, and what Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer called his "erratic, nasty style of governing."

But to make the argument stick in the 2020 presidential race, one of the 18 declared candidates needs to show what he or she would do to solve the problem. Only one has.

When they talk about immigration, most simply list positions that put them safely in the mainstream of their party. They denounce Trump's policies as barbaric and heartbreaking. They oppose family separation and long-term detention of asylum seekers.

They want Congress to pass an immigration reform law. They want to give "Dreamers," immigrants who entered the country illegally as children, residence permits and a path to citizenship.

But how would they end the crisis on the border — and how would they enforce immigration laws in the future?

Most haven't said — in part because within their party's progressive base, immigration is a minefield.

Two candidates, Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, have endorsed proposals to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a favorite cause of immigration activists. Others have not.

In past years, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont was an immigration hawk. He called for stricter enforcement of existing laws, especially against employers he says want "open borders" to keep workers' wages low.

Others tiptoe around enforcement, pledging to welcome immigrants and promising vaguely to find more humane ways to police the border.

Democratic voters are divided over the issue, too. Only a minority — roughly one-quarter of Democrats, according to several polls — want to abolish ICE. But that progressive minority is disproportionately active and vocal.

Most Democrats are of two minds when it comes to immigration.

Large majorities tell pollsters they consider immigrants an asset to the country. They oppose Trump's proposed border wall. They want to give the Dreamers — and others who entered the country illegally, for that matter — a path to citizenship. But they oppose "open borders" and want to enforce a limit on who can enter.

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"Here's the problem: Not everyone should be allowed to stay," said Cecilia Munoz, who was a top advisor on immigration to President Obama. "The answer to the crisis in Central America can't be everyone coming to the United States.

"So the big question, the hard question, is who do we think should be removed and what should that process look like," she told me. "But we're not having that debate. We're only having the easy debate — condemning the administration for its policies … . It requires some courage for someone to step up with a proposal."

Last week, one candidate did just that: Julian Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio. He's low in the polls and gets little media exposure; he deserves attention — and credit — for putting forth a serious proposal on a complicated problem.

Castro's proposal includes the usual Democratic planks on Dreamers, family separation and other issues, but then goes further.

He proposes decriminalizing illegal immigration — making it a civil offense, the federal equivalent of a traffic ticket or a building violation, instead of a criminal misdemeanor as it's been since 1929.

As a result, he'd get rid of immigration detention except for suspected criminals. Most immigrants without papers would be released, monitored and given a court hearing. If a migrant didn't qualify as a legal entrant, he or she would still face deportation.

Castro wouldn't abolish ICE, but he'd divide it into several new agencies: one to focus on threats to homeland security, others to deal with routine monitoring and management of immigration cases.

In effect, he would maintain limits on immigration, but stop treating most illegal entrants as criminals.

One thing Castro's proposal doesn't do, at least in much detail, is offer a way out of the current asylum seeker crisis.

Doris Meissner and Sarah Pierce of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute have drafted a plan, however. It includes streamlining the process for judging asylum cases, hiring more asylum officers, and releasing some asylum seekers with ankle bracelets instead of detaining them for months.

Not every Democrat will agree with those ideas. But it's time to start the debate.

The Democrats face a choice: Do they want to play defense on immigration, protesting endlessly that they're not what Trump calls the party of open borders? Or do they want to play offense, using the issue as a test of Trump's competence?

If their choice is offense, they'd better get to work.

© 2019 Los Angeles Times