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The campaigns discuss asylum, immigration enforcement, the role of ICE, and other controversial issues that have become a major hallmark of Trump’s presidency.
Amnesty International, in partnership with BuzzFeed News, is holding an immigration-focused forum Thursday in Las Vegas, where Democratic presidential campaigns will discuss where they stand on the controversial topics of asylum, immigration enforcement, and the role of ICE.
With much of the focus of the Democratic primary focused on top tier candidates arguing over issues of electability ahead of Super Tuesday on March 3, immigration policy — a big priority for President Trump — has largely taken a backseat during the past nine debates.
Immigration has been at the front and center of Trump’s administration since the beginning, from his rally cry of building a wall at the Southern border, to his push to implement what he initially called a “Muslim travel ban,” and forcing asylum-seekers to wait in countries like Mexico, Guatemala, and El Salvador while their US cases are under review.
Tom Steyer is the only Democratic candidate who agreed to appear at Amnesty International’s forum, which is being hosted by BuzzFeed News’ own Hamed Aleaziz, who has broken multiple stories about the treatment of asylum-seekers under the Trump administration.
Other candidates sent surrogates in their stead. They include Minnesota State Senator Melisa Franzen for Amy Klobuchar, Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas for Elizabeth Warren, Nevada State Senator Yvanna Cancela for Joe Biden, and Berni Sanders’ campaign manager, Faiz Shakir.
We’ll be updating this post as the participants wade into a one-on-one discussion with Aleaziz on some of the most pressing issues facing US immigration policy.
Minnesota Sen. Melisa Franzen for Amy Klobuchar
Restructuring ICE — but not doing away with the organization like some critics of the immigration agency have called for — would be one of the first priorities for Amy Klobuchar during her first 100 days in the White House, Franzen said.
“It certainly needs to be revamped and restructured and it’s something that is very toxic in our communities,” Franzen said, adding that the enforcement activities of the agency have festered fears in immigrant communities.
Klobuchar’s plan would also include doing away with private detention of immigrants and the detention of children in cages, the state senator said.
Franzen, however, would not say whether Klobuchar supported local law enforcement agencies not cooperating with agencies like ICE, but said the presidential candidate wanted immigration officials to focus on those who “are real criminals, and treat them differently than someone who is trying to do better for their lives.”
Bernie Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir
If elected president, Sen. Bernie Sanders would look at revamping current immigration policies to increase the number of refugee visas and break up ICE as part of a system that is based on fear and racism, his campaign manager said.
“If you’re brown-skinned, you’re treated differently and we find a way to cut you out,” Faiz Shakir said. “We have to rethink the whole damn system. We have to break down the whole deportation machinery.”
Sanders would also end the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” program, which has forced roughly 60,000 people to wait in Mexico while their asylum cases are considered, Shakir said, adding that the senator would consider allowing those currently affected to come back to the US.
“Right now, the standard that we are setting is embarrassing,” he said. “We’re basically projecting to the world: close your border, build walls, shut people out, call them the ‘other’ and don’t let them in. We have to reverse that entirely.”
Sanders has also committed to a temporary moratorium on deportations, although “case-by-case” considerations would be made for people who have been convicted of serious and violent crimes, Shakir said.
Rep. Joaquin Castro for Elizabeth Warren
Sen. Elizabeth Warren would try to work with Congress to implement “humane” immigration policies and reverse many of those put in place by President Trump, Castro said. But, he added, Warren would also not be timid about wielding presidential executive power to carry out the changes.
“The first thing that as president she would do is undo some of the dangerous and harmful policies that President Trump has put into place,” he said. “She also won’t be shy about using her executive authority to do positive things.”
That would include stopping the deportation of veterans, stop the detention of children in cages, and repeal the policy known as Migrant Protection Protocols, or MPP, to wait in Mexico while their immigration cases are reviewed in the US.
Although Warren has not called for abolishing ICE, Castro said the senator would push for “top to bottom” reform of the agency, along with Customs and Border Protection. That effort would include taking away the enforcement responsibility from ICE, although he did not offer specifics on what agency would take on the added role in that case.
“You’re still going to enforce US law, but it wouldn’t come from an agency that has been fairly rogue,” Castro said.
Warren would also raise the cap to 175,000 for refugees admitted into the US on her first year, Castro said, and allow asylum-seekers to remain in the US while their cases reviewed.
Immigrants would also have a right to counsel for their court cases, although Castro said he had not spoken to Warren about how that would be provided.
Steyer would stop deportations of anyone not convicted of a serious crime, and would also look at providing amnesty for the millions of undocumented immigrants who are currently in the country, the Democratic presidential hopeful said.
“I believe amnesty is what I’m searching for the 12 million people who are here,” he said.
Like other Democratic candidates, Steyer was deeply critical of ICE as an organization, but said he would rather institute wholesale reform.
“I believe that ICE has been used as an improper organization to terrorize people at the border,” he said.
Steyer said he would also end the relationship between immigration agencies and local law enforcement.
“This immigration system has turned to being a system of torture and, you know, breaking international law in a way that is entirely un-American,” he said.
Nevada State Sen. Yvanna Cancela for Joe Biden
Vice President Joe Biden wants to end the use of private companies for immigration detention facilities and the practice of separating families detained by officials, Cancela said.
Despite the practice being ramped up under the Obama-Biden White House, Cancela said former vice president has heard the calls from activists and critics to find a better way.
“One of the things that the vice president talked about recently…was that he understood that it took long too long to get it right on immigration under the Obama Administration,” she said.
Cancela also said Biden was moved by the stories of asylum seekers at the border, particularly the struggles of LGBTQ asylum seekers, like that relayed by an audience members Thursday of a trans woman who was sent back to El Salvador, where she was later killed.
The fight to protect the most vulnerable is a personal one for Biden, Cancela said.
“What Trump has done to vilify immigrants, to physically punish immigrants, is wrong,” she said. “That should be the courage we use, the energy we use, to make sure he is not in office come next January.”
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Miller forcefully defended family separation, telling the Times that voters would support the White House “90-10.” In fact, the public was outraged, especially after a recording of small children crying for their parents at a Texas detention center was leaked to ProPublica. A Border Patrol agent could be heard saying derisively, “Here we have an orchestra.” The policy dominated television news, and Ivanka and Melania Trump lobbied the President to end it. Some inside the Administration thought that the policy was justified, but that its execution had been poor. Several officials blamed Miller. “How many things have fallen because of bad messaging?” a D.H.S. agency head said to me. “Isn’t Miller supposed to be the master of messaging?” On June 18th, officials at the White House decided to explain the Administration’s position to the public in a press conference. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the President’s chief spokesperson, pressured Nielsen to deliver the briefing, as a means of shielding the White House from blame. Nielsen’s advisers were uniformly opposed. “She would become the face of the policy,” one of them told me. But, according to an official who was present for the conversation, Sanders told Nielsen, “The President is getting killed on this, and it’s your department. How are you not going to go out there?”
At the press conference, Nielsen alternated between denying that the government had created a policy to separate children from their parents and defending zero tolerance as a necessary measure for enforcing immigration laws. Forty-eight hours later, Trump ended the separation policy, blaming Nielsen for his political defeat. “I have no idea how Miller managed to escape this one,” the official told me. “He knows just how and when to disappear.”
As Trump has consolidated his control over the Republican Party, it is easy to see Miller as an embodiment of the rightward turn of conservative politics. But, in the past year, he has made enemies among people at D.H.S. who shared his goals of tightening enforcement and revamping the legal-immigration system yet were alarmed by his contempt for policy channels and his disregard for the law. As one of them told me, Miller was conducting “a kind of permanent political campaign.” Miller tried to enlist officials to bolster the President’s claims about immigrant crime. David Lapan, a retired colonel who worked for John Kelly at D.H.S., told me, “He’d say, ‘You need to work harder to show how bad immigrants are. Highlight stories on criminal immigrants getting charged after being released.’ ”
On Fridays, Miller convened a meeting at the Eisenhower Office Building, next to the White House, to discuss the ways in which federal bureaucrats were falling short of implementing Trump’s agenda. Eventually, career officials stopped attending, and Miller’s audience became the political appointees who were already aligned with him. He harangued them, too. At one meeting, displeased with an ICE official who had once worked at the Center for Immigration Studies, he told him, “I’ll send you right back to writing blog posts for C.I.S.”
After Trump ended the family-separation policy, he was forced to make another concession. More families were fleeing Central America and travelling to the U.S., owing in part to the cycle of restrictive measures being adopted, then refashioned and sometimes abandoned after court challenges and political setbacks. When border policy changes in frequent and conspicuous ways, news tends to spread through Central America. “Trump made for the perfect sales pitch for smugglers: Come now, before it’s too late!” James Nealon, a former senior D.H.S. official, told me. The department ran out of detention space, and had to resume the catch-and-release policy.
According to a D.H.S. official who worked closely with Miller, as “the problems got more complex, and as the frustrations mounted,” his behavior became erratic. At meetings, he would ask for data that were irrelevant to the discussion, then launch into a monologue. Another D.H.S. official said, “You didn’t know which Stephen you were going to get. He could be very articulate, then he’d be quoting Breitbart in a diatribe. It was all over the place.” His policy ideas were often impracticable or unrelated to the issue under discussion. He wanted the department to house all migrants at Guantánamo Bay, and the F.B.I. to conduct immigration arrests. One official told me, “It got tedious. None of it would solve the problem we had. And, at the end of the operations he was pushing, the question would just be: Are you going to have something meaningful and sustainable that isn’t just a sharp elbow?”
Department officials felt that they knew how to manage the border crisis. They needed more resources, to house families and children, and other agencies needed to absorb the overflow. But, the official said, Miller “had unreasonable expectations about how fast the bureaucracy could write rules to fix the biggest problems we had. His default position was that there was a bunch of bureaucrats in the bowels of ICE or Citizenship and Immigration Services who didn’t want this to happen.”
Because Miller had inserted himself into D.H.S.’s policymaking process, officials felt obliged to shield their work from him. At one point, to keep Miller from discovering the details of a policy discussion, the head of D.H.S. held meetings in a classified security bunker, known as a SCIF, where cell phones are prohibited and strict rules of confidentiality are in effect. Convinced that a cabal of deep-state actors was trying to thwart Trump’s agenda, Miller had effectively forced officials to go underground in their own agencies. Steve Bannon told me, “Stephen’s experience has deepened his belief in the deep state, that they’re all going to leak in an attempt to stop his policy efforts.”
Increasingly, Miller lashed out at high-level D.H.S. officials, even those who favored many of the same policies. A frequent target was Francis Cissna, the director of Citizenship and Immigration Services since 2017, who had worked to reshape the immigration system in ways that were often too technical to capture mainstream attention. Cissna had been an immigration lawyer in the government for more than a decade; when he got married, his wedding cake was decorated with an edible version of the Immigration and Naturalization Act. “He’s an immigration nerd,” Barbara Strack, a former colleague, told me. Cissna was a hero to members of the restrictionist movement: deeply knowledgeable, he framed his actions as a commitment to the rule of law.
For months, Cissna had been working on the Administration’s most significant attempt to overhaul the legal-immigration system: the “public-charge rule,” which would allow the government to block millions of people—disproportionately, immigrants from Latin America, Africa, and Asia—from getting green cards based on their income. It typically takes two years to fully implement a rule, but Miller wanted it done more quickly. He already resented Cissna for what he called the “asylum fraud crisis” at the border, since Cissna’s agency was in charge of handling asylum applications. After he hectored Cissna on one interagency phone call, with dozens of officials listening in, Cissna told him to stand down.
“I won’t stand down,” Miller shouted. “I won’t stand down. I won’t stand down.”
On another occasion, during a meeting in the White House Situation Room, Miller lambasted Ronald Vitiello, the head of ICE, who had worked in immigration enforcement for more than three decades, for not single-handedly rewriting federal rules on the detention of children. “You ought to be working on this regulation all day, every day,” Miller told him. “It should be the first thought you have when you wake up. And it should be the last thought you have before you go to bed.”
Cissna, Vitiello, and others were exasperated by Miller’s lack of interest in setting sound policies. “We’d say, ‘Well, the law says this and that, you’d need to make changes,’ ” an official told me. “Then we’d get the phone call again, and the proposal would be slightly different. We’d say, ‘You still can’t do that.’ They’d come back to us again. Finally, sure, it was lawful, but it was also stupid.” Officials came to think that Miller was territorial; he wanted to be the only immigration expert in the room at all times, and he was willing to undermine like-minded people who might impede his access to the President. One of them told me, “He’s not a true believer. If he were, he’d want to get the agenda done right.”
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A 34-year-old Mexican man died while in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement at an Ohio hospital Thursday, according to a source familiar with the incident.
The death marks the seventh while in ICE custody during the 2020 fiscal year — just one short of the number of deaths in all of the 2019 fiscal year.
A source with knowledge of the death said that the preliminary cause appears to be suicide.
Over the course of the latest series of in-custody deaths, ICE has said it is “firmly committed to the health and welfare of all those in its custody” and that the agency conducts comprehensive reviews of all such cases.
Officials have long said that the agency is dedicated to providing timely and comprehensive medical care to immigrants in its custody, noting that they have access to a daily sick call and 24-hour emergency care. The agency has publicized that it spends more than $269 million each year on health care services.
In December, the House Oversight and Reform Committee announced it had opened an investigation into the medical care of immigrant detainees in the wake of a BuzzFeed News story that revealed a series of allegations of substandard care from a whistleblower.
BuzzFeed News first reported the memo and documented how it contained reports of detainees being given incorrect medication and suffering from delays in treating withdrawal symptoms, as well as one who was allowed to become so mentally unstable he lacerated his own penis and required surgery.
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