Beto O’Rourke has finally released an immigration plan. Here’s what he wants to do.

O'Rourke is the second candidate to tackle immigration policy.

Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) speaks at a campaign town hall at the Irish Cultural Center on April 28, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)
Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) speaks at a campaign town hall at the Irish Cultural Center on April 28, 2019 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images)

Former Democratic congressman and 2020 presidential hopeful Beto O’Rourke has not shied away from the issue of immigration. Having grown up in and represented El Paso, Texas, O’Rourke frequently cites his border town credentials when speaking with voters about his plan to completely revamp the U.S. immigration system and provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants living and working in the country.

The details of how he would do that, however, have been absent from his platform — until now. On Wednesday, O’Rourke released a three-pronged immigration plan proposing to undo the “cruel and cynical” border policies causing chaos at the border on day one, to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws “in our image,” and to ensure the United States works closely with and invests in Latin American countries.

“As a fourth-generation El Pasoan, Beto uniquely recognizes the urgency of fixing our broken immigration and naturalization system,” his plan reads. “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 is the second presidential candidate to release a detailed immigration platform. In early April, fellow Texan and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro unveiled his “people first” immigration plan. The two plans have a lot of similarities: both include a path to citizenship for every undocumented immigrant in the United States, the creation of an independent immigration court, and a repeal of Trump’s Muslim Ban.


O’Rourke’s immigration plan names other dangerous Trump administration decisions that have caused nothing but chaos at the border. Policies like “metering,” which limits the number of asylum applications processed at ports of entry each day, have caused months-long waits for families fleeing dangerous conditions in their home countries. The “Remain In Mexico” policy, which forces asylum seekers from Central America to wait out their cases in Mexico, has caused confusion at the border. Asylum seekers were initially told they were to spend just 45 days in Mexico, but now some are receiving court dates scheduled for a year away. O’Rourke’s immigration plan says he would eliminate both policies on day one of his presidency.

Also on the first day, he would reinstate the Central American Minors program, which allows children with parents in the United States to apply for refugee status from their home countries. The Trump administration eliminated this program, despite it being a safer alternative to minors making a journey to the U.S.-Mexico border on their own.

With Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detaining a record number of people, O’Rourke also would issue an executive order mandating the agency only detain those with “criminal backgrounds representing a danger to our communities.” The executive order would also eliminate all funding for private, for-profit prison operators “whose incentive is profit, not security.” Instead of detaining families, O’Rourke’s plan would prioritize community-based alternatives, which his campaign argues is “nearly one-tenth the cost of detention” and ensures families make it to their court appearances.

The immigration courts, meanwhile, are facing a backlog of over 800,000. O’Rourke’s plan would increase the number of judges, interpreters, clerks, and attorneys at the border. It would also divorce the immigration court system from the Department of Justice under Article 1. Currently, immigration courts are under the purview of the U.S. Attorney General, which has allowed the court to become politicized. The Attorney General sets court precedent and caseloads for immigration judges, which has ballooned under the Trump administration. Ashley Tabaddor, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, has routinely called for an independent immigration court as a key part of immigration reform.

He has also vowed to put the “full weight of the presidency” behind legislation that provides a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people in the United States, an an immediate path to citizenship for immigrants brought to the United States by their parents — known as “Dreamers” — and those protected by programs like Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Enforced Departure (DED).


While the Trump administration has recently announced an immigration plan that would all but eliminate family-based migration in favor of high-skilled workers, O’Rourke’s plan does both. By removing bars for re-entry and prioritizing reunification visas, the number of families separated by bureaucracy would be reduced. In the face of America’s burgeoning labor market, O’Rourke also wants to increase the visa caps so that those who want to contribute economically to the country are able to do so. This includes granting foreign-born students in STEM programs more flexibility to stay in the United States after graduation. Since Trump was inaugurated, the number of international students has been in decline. According to ICE data, the total number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities at all levels declined by 2.7% from March 2018 to March 2019.

O’Rourke has also proposed a new “community-based visa” program that would supplement the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program which would be rebuilt to “align with America’s tradition of welcoming vulnerable refugees from around the world.” Under the Trump administration, the number of refugees resettled in the United States has fallen to its lowest level since 1980, when the resettlement program first began.

While O’Rourke does spell out many Trump administration policies he would overturn, Castro’s plan calls for an end to a policy from the early 20th century known as Section 1325. Section 1325 makes illegal entry into the United States a crime, and it was largely responsible for allowing the separation of families in the spring of 2018, as the adults were referred for criminal prosecution.

“This shift to criminalize immigration is at the core of many of this administration’s most egregious immigration policies — from family separation to indiscriminate ICE raids to targeting asylum seekers,” Castro wrote in a Medium post outlining his plan. “It also underlies some of this administration’s most damaging rhetoric that vilifies immigrants and families.”

Both Castro and O’Rourke agree that ICE and Customs and Border Protection (CBP) must be reformed in the wake of the unprecedented detention numbers and the six migrant child deaths in the last eight months.

O’Rourke wants to create a uniform process for tracking and preventing migrant deaths along the border and create an independent Border Oversight Commission, an Ombudsman, and Border Community Liaison office within the agencies to increase transparency. Castro, however, has proposed splitting the body of ICE largely responsible for the daily arrests and detention of undocumented immigrants, Enforcement Removal Operations, under two agencies in the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice. He argues this will prioritize actual national security risks over ordinary, non-criminal immigrants. Meanwhile, CBP would be steered away from immigration enforcement and focused more on drug trafficking.