The Party of Illegal Immigration

From left: South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sen, Kamala Harris before the start of the second night of the Democratic presidential debate in Miami, Fla., June 27, 2019. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

There didn’t seem much room for Democrats to move left on immigration, but they’ve found it.

On the first night of the Democratic debates, Julian Castro made a big issue of his call to repeal Section 1325 of Title 8 of the United States Code, which says it’s a federal crime to enter the country without authorization. This felt like a ploy for attention from the periphery of the second-tier debate stage, yet last night seven out of the ten candidates raised their hands for the idea, including top contenders Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg.

The collective posture of the party is getting closer and closer to open borders, only without embracing the label.

Illegal immigrants aren’t typically prosecuted under Section 1325, although the Bush administration started a program called “Operation Streamline” to increase prosecutions, hoping to discourage would-be crossers and especially to create a deterrent against illegal reentry (illegal entry is a misdemeanor often punished by time served, whereas illegal reentry is a felony). Such prosecutions were a key element of Trump’s family-separation policy that had to be quickly abandoned.

The repeal of Section 1325 would send a message of permissiveness that would create another incentive for migrants to come across the border, and remove a tool for going after coyotes (it can be difficult to prove their offense, so prosecuting them for illegal entry is a backstop). Section 1325 has been on the books for 90 years, and it reflects the commonsense view that entering the United States without lawful permission should be a crime. Yes, it’d still be a civil offense to be present in the United States without papers, and in theory, still possible to be deported — although this brings us to the rest of the Democratic approach to immigration.

Asked if an illegal immigrant in the interior of the country who hasn’t committed another crime should be deported, Joe Biden replied that such a person “should not be the focus of deportation.” Kamala Harris said he “absolutely” should not be deported, and Representative Eric Swalwell said “that person can be part of this great American experience.” This is a promise to gut interior enforcement that, coupled with the latitudinarian attitude at the border, would be a huge step toward open borders.

If there were any doubt that Democrats want to welcome illegal immigrants and treat them like U.S. citizens, seeing every single candidate on the stage last night promising to provide government health insurance to illegal immigrants removes it. This, obviously, would be even more of a magnet to illegal immigration, and would erode the difference between U.S. citizens and people who literally showed up the day before yesterday in violation of our laws. Besides, the U.S. government is under enough fiscal strain providing promised benefits to citizens and legal residents without, in effect, extending the safety net to some percentage of the population of Northern Triangle countries.

The Democrats’ radicalism on immigration is certainly a political mistake that will give President Trump ready fodder next year. We’d say it’s impossible for Democrats to get any further out on this limb, but the next round of debates is only a month away.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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