Democrats Exchange Barbs Over Decriminalization Of Illegal Immigration

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Jason Hopkins Immigration and politics reporter
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Democratic presidential candidates appeared divided over the idea of decriminalizing illegal immigration into the United States.

The 10 candidates on stage Tuesday night appeared to split into two general camps over whether to decriminalize illegal immigration. Several moderate candidates agreed that doing so would incentivize illegal immigration — while other, more progressive candidates, argued it was a humanitarian issue.

“The problem is right now, the criminalization statute is what gives Donald Trump the ability to take children away from their parents. It’s what gives him the ability to lock up people at our borders. We need to continue to have border security, and we can do that, but what we can’t do is not live our values,” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren said, adding that illegally crossing the border should not be a criminal offense.

While Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said there would be strong border protections, he also criticized President Donald Trump’s “racism” and “xenophobia.”

“We’ll have strong border protections, but the main point I want to make, is that what Trump is doing, through his racism and his xenophobia, is demonizing a group of people, and as president I will end that demonization,” he said. “If a mother and a child walk thousands of miles on a dangerous path, in my view, they are not criminals. They are people fleeing violence.”

Sanders added that he would bring “the entire hemisphere together” to find a way to rebuild the countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.


Under U.S. law, it is a federal misdemeanor to illegally enter the country, a crime punishable up to six months in prison. Anyone found re-entering the country illegally for a second or more times could face jail time up to two years or longer if other crimes are involved. A number of Democratic presidential candidates are in support of removing the criminal offense of illegally entering the country, and making it a civil offense instead.

Candidates shake hands before the start of the first night of the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, U.S.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg (L), U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren shake hands before the start of the first night of the second 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Detroit, Michigan, U.S. July 30, 2019. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Other Democrats on Tuesday night, however, argued that border decriminalization and free health care to illegal immigration would only exacerbate the immigration crisis taking place at the U.S. southern border.

“We got a hundred thousand people showing up at the border right now. If we decriminalize entry, if we give health care to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that. Don’t take my word. That was President Obama’s Homeland security secretary that said that,” Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said, mostly rebuking Warren and Sanders on the issue. (RELATED: ‘Irresponsible Rhetoric’: CBP Chief Condemns ‘False’ Attacks From Democrats)


Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke said — after waiving citizenship fees for green card holders, freeing DACA recipients of the “fear” of deportation, refugee and asylum reform, ending for-profit detention — he expects “people who come here” to abide by the law.

“If you want to come into the country, you should at least ring the doorbell,” Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan said. “You don’t decriminalize people just walking into the United States.”

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