“Que dios te bendiga,” my grandmother would bless my brother and me every morning as we left for school, making the sign of the cross in front of us. She immigrated here from Mexico when she was seven years old, and though she passed away many years ago, her influence on me is still strong. As a candidate for President of the United States, her memory guides how I think about many issues — most notably, our immigration policy.
One of my strongest memories of my grandmother is the way she would tell my twin brother, Joaquin, and me about how she came to this country as a child after being separated from her dying mother. Even as a seventy-year-old woman, when she recounted those moments, she would cry like the seven-year-old girl she was when it happened, sobbing that she never got to say goodbye. I see her image in the children at our borders today.
Today, the photos and videos of immigrant children crying for their parents haunt our collective conscience. Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy is responsible for children as young as infants being taken away from their parents, caged, and even “lost” in the foster care system. In federal detention, several immigrant children whose parents have presented their families for the sanctuary of asylum have even died. We are heartbroken. We are outraged.
The president’s failure in this defining moment was complete: It was a failure of leadership, a failure of policy, and a failure of conscience. But those all stemmed from an original and foundational failure: a failure to understand that despite the rhetoric, when we see families seeking refuge, we don’t see criminals, or an invasion, or a threat to national security.
We see kids. We see parents. We see people.
We see people first. Because we are people first. And it’s time for an immigration policy that puts people first.
This moment demands that of us. And in order to meet the challenge, we must not only expand our political will, but also our moral imagination. We must remember what immigration means to our national identity, and who we want to be as a country.
The next President must start by reversing the cruel policies of the Trump administration — including the Muslim ban, wasteful spending on a pointless wall, and cuts to the refugee program — and ending the vile rhetoric that has scapegoated and vilified immigrants.
Next we need to repair our existing legal immigration system because the most effective way to secure the border is to ensure that our legal immigration policy works for people.
We need a pathway to full and equal citizenship for the 11 million people living here peacefully, and contributing to our culture and our economy. We must protect Dreamers and their parents, and folks under protected status who fled natural disasters, persecution, or violence. We need to revamp the visa system and end the backlog of people who are waiting to reunite with their families.
We must end the three and ten year bars that require undocumented individuals — who otherwise qualify for legal status — to leave the country and their families behind, in order to attain citizenship.
We need to create a secure and humane border. The worst of the government’s actions stem from a little-known, but significant policy that is central to today’s inhumane and flawed immigration system: Section 1325. This antiquated law dates back to the era when my grandmother presented herself at Texas’ Eagle Pass border crossing, remanded as an orphan to her nearest relatives in San Antonio. In that decade — the 1920s — the U.S. government moved to cut off a wave of Mexican immigrants like her. These laws got a new life in 2005, when the Bush administration decided to charge those that crossed the border with criminal violations, rather than civil ones. This shift to criminalize immigration is at the core of many of this administration’s most egregious immigration policies — from family separation to indiscriminate ICE raids to targeting asylum seekers. It also underlies some of this administration’s most damaging rhetoric that vilifies immigrants and families
The Trump administration has slashed the number of people who can claim asylum at our ports of entry, and weaponized Section 1325 to try and make it a crime to claim asylum outside a port of entry. These misguided policies, combined with criminally under-resourced ports of entry, have created a backlog at our borders. The result is apparent in the scenes from El Paso recently, where thousands of migrants were held with limited food and water in caged outdoor pens.
The truth is, immigrants seeking refuge in our country aren’t a threat to national security. Migration shouldn’t be a criminal justice issue. It’s time to end this draconian policy and return to treating immigration as a civil — not a criminal — issue.
Further, we must properly equip and modernize our ports of entry. It’s time we stopped relying on outdated detention practices and instead utilize proven alternatives, and eliminated the for-profit immigration detention industry. Customs and Border Protection must focus its efforts on border-related activities like drug and human trafficking, and we must drastically improve the oversight and accountability of our border enforcement officials. Additionally, it’s time we reconstitute Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and split the agency in half — keeping national security functions such as human and drug trafficking and anti-terrorism investigations within the Department of Homeland Security, and reassigning the enforcement functions to other agencies as appropriate to increase oversight and raise standards.
Donald Trump’s cruel and punitive “zero-tolerance” policies have done nothing to deter migrants or address the root causes of migration. And his recent short-sighted plan to cut foreign aid going to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador will only exacerbate the problem. I am calling for a 21st century Marshall Plan for Central America, focusing on stabilizing the nations that are the main sources of migration to the United States. Making investments in our southern neighbors boost U.S. economic growth, strengthens global relationships and helps ensure that all people can find the safety and stability they seek in their home countries.
It’s time our nation’s immigration system reflect the collective values that we all share — equality, fairness, justice, and compassion. It’s time that we recognize that protecting our borders and treating immigrants with compassion are not mutually exclusive. I’m proud to unveil an immigration policy that re-integrates those collective values in our immigration system. A policy that is sensible and fair, and treats those who cross our borders in search of refuge with empathy and understanding.
Last summer, I visited our southern border in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, seeing for myself how our immigration policy is failing to uphold our nation’s values. I went to the detention centers where children were held apart from their parents. I sat in on court proceedings for immigrants who were charged with 1325 violations. I have seen children too small to speak sitting alone in court, designated threats to our nation, criminals.
Last year, the Trump administration told Americans that if we would just be cruel enough to separate little children from their parents, that cruelty would deter more families form seeking asylum at our southern border. It turns out this was totally wrong — both morally and factually. More families are coming. Their policy of cruelty is a failure, and we should choose compassion instead. We should choose people first.