Most Democrats on the debate stage Thursday said they would end criminal penalties for illegal immigration, staking out bold new ground on the thorniest issue in Washington.
Only a couple of Democrats didn’t — including Sen. Michael Bennet and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, who when asked directly failed to respond if he would decriminalize illegal border crossings.
“That criminalization — that is the basis for family separations,” said South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
The question was raised in the previous night’s debate by former Obama Cabinet official Julian Castro, who challenged the entire Democratic field to agree to repeal the current penalty for illegally crossing the border.
Entry without inspection, which is the official term for jumping the border, is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.
Mr. Castro said President Trump’s zero tolerance border policy last year relied on that section of law to bring prosecutions against many new illegal immigrants, sending them to jail. Parents who went to jail were separated from their children because there are no family facilities in the federal criminal justice system.
Mr. Castro’s demand has sparked a major debate within the immigrant-rights community.
Marisa Franco, director of Mijente, said decriminalization is now “the baseline standard for all Democratic presidential candidates on the issue of immigration.”
“This is a critical advance, spurred forward by the efforts of directly affected communities who have tirelessly sought reforms and paths forward on this issue,” she said.
But Ali Noorani, a longtime activist and executive director of America is Better, said scrapping the law isn’t the right path.
He said there is a problem of too many prosecutions, but said that can be solved by better guidance for prosecutors.
“The answer to overcriminalization and overprosecution is to ensure that law enforcement — including the Department of Homeland Security — use their discretion to prioritize safety threats, not to strike statutes whole hog,” he said.