LAS VEGAS (AP) — Joe Biden has joined his top Democratic presidential rivals in pledging to end for-profit migrant detention centers that existed while he was vice president. He also acknowledged through his campaign the "pain" caused by deportations carried out by the Obama administration.
Those moves, which come amid skepticism about Biden from some immigrant-rights activists, are part of a comprehensive immigration policy released Wednesday by the former vice president. The wide-ranging plan positions Biden as a stark contrast to President Donald Trump but not as far to the left as some of his rivals for the Democratic nomination are.
"It's all about families. It's all about families to me," Biden said at a Las Vegas union hall filled with casino workers, including many immigrants.
Position papers released earlier Wednesday went further, with an explicit nod to the criticism Biden has gotten for immigration policy under President Barack Obama.
"Joe Biden understands the pain felt by every family across the U.S. that has had a loved one removed from the country, including under the Obama-Biden administration," the campaign wrote.
Biden and his campaign outlined priorities that include ending family separations at the border, rolling back Trump's travel limits on citizens from certain Muslim-majority countries and providing a citizenship path for about 11 million people in the U.S. illegally, including immediately shielding from deportation the immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children.
The former vice president also pledged to enforce existing asylum law by reversing the Trump administration's moves that have made claiming asylum extremely difficult, while ending the national emergency that Trump has declared to divert Pentagon appropriations to the construction of a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border.
As a counter to Trump's wall and asylum limits, Biden calls for increasing the annual cap on refugees from 18,000 to 125,000. And he emphasized a proposal to spend $4 billion in four years aimed at stabilizing Central American governments and economies. The idea, Biden explained in Nevada, is to address the root causes of mass migration and relieve pressure at the U.S. border, where the scene of migrant detention facilities has drawn international attention.
"We should be engaging and offering our help to organize this hemisphere right now," Biden said. "I'm going to spend, literally, a billion dollars a year to build up those countries so there's no reason to leave in the beginning."
Biden joins progressive senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, along with Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as Democratic White House hopefuls promising to end the for-profit detention centers. The U.S. government contracted for such facilities under Obama, drawing criticism from civil rights groups at the time. But the practice has gained new scrutiny under Trump's hard-line approach to immigration, especially his administration's practice of separating families in the facilities.
The Republican president has defended his policies as necessary to protect U.S. security and American workers' economic interests, and he's made clear that he will emphasize the issue again in 2020, just as he did to energize his white conservative base in 2016.
Biden said Wednesday he wants "a fundamentally different focus." Among his specific proposals, Biden calls for new flexibility in work visas, with the intention of making the program more amenable to sectors that depend on seasonal workers. Biden also calls for rolling back Trump's public charge rule that effectively requires would-be immigrants to demonstrate immediate financial independence.
He pledges more oversight of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as Customs and Border Protection. The heads of both agencies would report directly to the president, the Biden campaign said. The plan also states that veterans, active-duty military members and their families will not be targeted for deportation.
Immigration has not been a dominant thread in Democrats' primary contest, with most candidates echoing similar condemnations of Trump's policies and rhetoric. Biden has, however, distinguished himself from some of his rivals, including Sanders and Warren, who have called for decriminalizing all border crossings.
"If you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back," Biden said on the Democratic debate stage this summer. "It's a crime."
Buttigieg has argued a more nuanced position, saying he'd be willing to repeal the criminal statute on border crossing to make it a civil offense, provided there is no "fraud" involved.