As More Candidates Announce, Their Immigration Conversation Should Include …

May 5, 2015

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The growing ranks of 2016 presidential contenders are staking out positions on immigration — in increasingly high-profile ways.

Today, for example, Hillary Clinton is scheduled to meet with DREAMers, as well as with adults who would be eligible for relief under the Obama administration’s planned expansion of deferred action on deportations. And Jeb Bush continued his outreach to Hispanic voters with a Cinco de Mayo video.

The immigration conversation among candidates should focus on immigration reform to replace our broken immigration system; reform enjoys broad support among conservative voters and leaders. With some notable exceptions, the debate is proceeding in that fashion.

But voters also are looking for candidates who will identify opportunities to improve on the current administration’s policies. And they are looking for a conversation around immigration that focuses on moral clarity, economic success and the real people involved — not just on rote politics.

One way in which candidates can set themselves apart is by calling for an end to family immigration detention.

Analysts who focus on the economics of immigrant detention abhor a system that costs taxpayers an average of $298 per person per day, even more than standard immigrant detention. And faith leaders have led the efforts in opposition to detaining mothers and children in remote prisons.

Detention should be reserved for people who pose a danger to the community or a serious flight risk; generally, families fit neither category.

Whereas the Obama administration initially moved away from family detention, it changed direction last year in response to an increase in unaccompanied children as well as families. But the new focus on family detention came with plenty of problems. And even at the height of the increase last summer, without family detention in place, 85 percent of unaccompanied minors and about two-thirds of adults with children appeared for scheduled deportation hearings.

All of these factors help explain why conservatives including Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Alex Nowrasteh of the Cato Institute and evangelical and other faith leaders have spoken out against family detention.

“Candidates should support citizenship for the undocumented and a better legal immigration process,” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. “If candidates want to differentiate themselves from the current administration and appeal to faith and other conservative voters, they also should talk about ending wasteful family detention.”

In the meantime, with Mike Huckabee’s announcement today that he’s running for president and Clinton expected to highlight immigration at an appearance in Nevada, where do the announced candidates actually stand on immigration? Here’s a sample:

• Huckabee has tried to strike a nuanced tone on immigration. In January, he said of young undocumented immigrants, “You don’t punish a child for something his parents did.

Huckabee also spoke last week at the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC) Board Convention but did not address immigration directly. However, as a devout Southern Baptist, Huckabee should take note that more than two-thirds of evangelicals support immigration reform that addresses both border security and the opportunity for undocumented immigrants to earn legal status and citizenship.

• At this afternoon’s roundtable in Nevada, Clinton is expected to endorse immigration reform including a way for undocumented immigrants to earn citizenship, as well as border security. Advocates have been seeking a strong statement from Clinton, who has come across as lukewarm on certain immigration issues in the past.

• “We have to fix a broken immigration system and do it in short order,” Bush said during an appearance last week at the NHCLC convention. In addition to border security and expanding the possibilities for legal immigration, “it also means dealing with the 11 million undocumented workers that are here in this country, 11 million people that should come out from the shadows and receive earned legal status.”

The candidates’ conversation around immigration cannot ignore that America’s demographics are changing and that enforcement-only policies — and “self-deportation” — are not acceptable immigration stances for the 21st century.

“Serious candidates for president recognize that we need a constructive conversation about immigrants and immigration reform,” Noorani concluded. “We expect to hear thoughtful ideas about better policy. That means talking about the real costs of a broken system and addressing what they are going to do about the 11 million undocumented immigrants who have no realistic path forward.”