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O'Rourke announces immigration plan ending family separation, offering solution for Dreamers

2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke unveiled his immigration policy plan Wednesday morning, arguing that his border roots make him the best candidate to roll back Trump administration policies and spearhead major changes to modernize the US immigration system.

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Caroline Kelly
CNN — 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke unveiled his immigration policy plan Wednesday morning, arguing that his border roots make him the best candidate to roll back Trump administration policies and spearhead major changes to modernize the US immigration system.

The plan takes a three-pronged approach, O'Rourke's campaign said: rescinding "inhumane" Trump administration policies such as family separations at the border; convincing Congress to pass better immigration laws, including a legislative solution for the so-called Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children; and investing $5 billion in Central America to help address the root causes of migration.

"As a fourth-generation El Pasoan, Beto uniquely recognizes the urgency of fixing our broken immigration and naturalization system," the plan states. "Rooted in his experience serving the largest binational community in the Western Hemisphere -- one that draws its strength and prosperity from its rich heritage of welcoming immigrants -- Beto is proposing a new path forward to ensure we honor our laws, live up to our values, and once again harness the power of a new generation of immigration toward our shared prosperity."

O'Rourke isn't the first Democratic candidate to offered a detailed immigration plan. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro unveiled his immigration plan last month, including a proposal to repeal a Bush-era immigration law that makes entering the US illegally a criminal violation.

But O'Rourke told CNN's Leyla Santiago Tuesday that his plan stands out from others'.

"I think we go a lot further than really anyone in this plan," he said.

"But if there is a drug trafficker or someone who poses a threat or harm to our families here in this country, absolutely, we should be able to criminally prosecute them," O'Rourke later added. "So I wouldn't want to remove that as an option in every case, but I would acknowledge that the vast majority of families who are attempting to petition for asylum do not pose a threat and should not be criminally prosecuted."

O'Rourke said as president, he would use executive action to repeal several Trump administration policies, including the travel ban and an policy shift that's made it harder for migrant women and children who are victims of domestic violence to qualify for asylum.

Among the biggest shifts in O'Rourke's plan: how the United States approaches immigrant detention. Only migrants "with criminal backgrounds representing a danger to our communities" would face mandatory detention, according to the plan. O'Rourke also implied that he would reduce detention in favor of "community-based programs and family case management."

Additionally, private, for-profit detention centers would no longer receive federal funding because their "incentive is profit, not security," the plan states -- a potentially significant change as the majority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities are run by private contractors. In addition, the immigration court system would be moved out of the jurisdiction of the Justice Department and turned into an independent entity -- a move immigrant rights advocates, attorneys and immigration judges have been pushing for -- and over 2,000 lawyers would be sent to the border in conjunction with "funding a robust right to counsel."

The announcement of O'Rourke's new plan, which also includes a proposal to halt border wall construction, comes as a private effort to build a border wall near the former congressman's home turf picks up steam. O'Rourke told CNN that individuals building walls on private property is fair game; it's a government-funded expansion of the border wall that he's against.

"If you want to build a wall on your private property, that's great," he told Santiago on Tuesday. "But I don't want to take your private property to force you to build a wall right now. We don't need to do that -- security can be achieved by immigration reform."

In addition to executive actions he plans to pursue as soon as he takes office, O'Rourke also outlined legislation slated for his first 100 days in office that would create "an earned pathway to citizenship" for 11 million people, including Dreamers and those under the Temporary Protected Status program. In assessing preference categories, O'Rourke would establish "a brand new category whereby communities and congregations can welcome refugees through community sponsorship of visas" in an update to the US Refugee Admissions Program.

He would also pursue legislation to raise visa caps, streamline the naturalization process and make naturalization free for those who meet legal citizenship requirements, though he did not specify how the naturalization process would be funded. The plan would bolster defense at the border, including hiring additional Customs and Border Protection personnel and investing in new technology, in conjunction with more stringent accountability measures, such as an oversight commission and a system to track migrant deaths.

O'Rourke also said he would spend $5 billion on the Northern Triangle -- Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador -- mainly through non-government community groups and public-private partnerships to back non-violence training, promote civil rights, and foster economic opportunities and job training. The plan would also require that the region's governing elites pay taxes and back community efforts in order to access the US for business or vacation.

When asked how he would ensure that the funds were properly spent, O'Rourke promised to "rigorously measure this investment to ensure that it is producing the return that was intended -- that means if we are not reducing violence in a given program, then we pull that money from that."

O'Rourke previously laid out a vision for immigration reform in a Medium post in February, a few weeks before he announced his presidential bid. The post addressed President Donald Trump's then-upcoming trip to El Paso, with O'Rourke ultimately leading a counter-rally in response to the President's visit to his hometown.

Wednesday's plan expands the details of several points he laid out in the February post on immigration. O'Rourke called for opening a path to citizenship for Dreamers, investing in technology at ports of entry, increasing visa caps, and protecting vulnerable migrants such as women escaping abusive relationships.

"Make Latin America and specifically Central America a top foreign policy priority  -- stop relegating it to second-tier status  -- invest the time, talent and resources to assist in the development of the domestic institutions that will allow these countries to thrive and offer their citizens protection and economic opportunity," O'Rourke wrote as his eighth point of ten. "It is the only long-term solution to the number of asylum seekers and refugees coming to this country."

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