Republican and Democratic Party Platforms Reflect Parallel Universes on Immigration Policy


Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump
takes the stage at the Republican National
Convention. (Photo: Ida Mae Astute/ABC)

The stark contrast between the Republican and Democratic parties over immigration, laid bare during a contentious primary season, was codified as the party platforms were finalized and approved during the quadrennial national conventions. The roster of convention speakers further illustrated the gulf between the parties. The Republican convention gave prominent speaking slots to victims of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants, as well as to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has attracted accolades, controversy, and litigation over his immigration enforcement tactics. The Democratic convention, by contrast, showcased several unauthorized immigrants who have become prominent activists, including some who have benefited from the Obama administration’s deportation-relief policies.

Though party platforms are not binding on legislators or the executive branch, they do offer a clear picture of the issues animating the parties’ most vocal constituencies and often represent a roadmap for future legislative agendas.

While the Republican platform is grounded in heightened concerns about border and national security, perceived weak enforcement of immigration laws, and high levels of legal immigration, the Democratic platform focuses on increased rights and protections for the unauthorized population and recent flows of Central Americans, as well as immigrant integration. In many ways, the sharply divergent platforms offer mounting evidence—even in comparison to earlier platforms—of how the two parties live in parallel universes on the subject of immigration. Unlike the 2008 and 2012 platforms, this year’s Republican blueprint does not endorse increases in any legal immigration categories, and the Democratic platform is silent on any new or renewed enforcement measures. The only commonality between the two platforms is the prioritization of citizenship for immigrants serving in the armed forces.

The Republican Platform

The Republican platform, not surprisingly, contains two central themes embraced by presidential nominee Donald Trump since he made immigration a centerpiece of his campaign: building a wall on the southern border and screening immigrants from certain countries or with certain religious affiliations.

This year’s platform calls for walling off the entire 2,000-mile border, in contrast with the 2012 version, which advocated finishing the double-layered fencing mandated along certain sections of the border under the Secure Fence Act of 2006.

While the platform mirrors the Trump vow to build a wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border, the document attempts to take a more nuanced and practical stance than the candidate’s recommended ban on admission of all Muslims or all individuals from regions with proven histories of terrorism. Instead, the platform advocates “special scrutiny” for foreign nationals seeking admission from terror-sponsoring countries or “regions associated with Islamic terrorism.” The platform also calls for renewal of the National Security Entry-Exit Registration System (NSEERS), a post-9/11 program under which males from 25 predominantly Muslim countries were required to register and be fingerprinted and photographed upon entry to the United States or while within the country. NSEERS was suspended in April 2011.

In a major departure from one of Trump’s primary themes, and in a concession to the standard party position, the platform is silent on enforcement measures against the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants—refraining from taking a stance on the candidate’s call for mass deportations.

The Republican platform, for the first time in recent history, asks for a reduction in legal immigration by arguing that “it is indefensible to continue offering lawful permanent residence to more than one million foreign nationals every year.” And it seeks major revisions of the criteria for granting refugee or asylum status—by limiting protection to “cases of political, ethnic, or religious persecution.” The United States is one of 145 signatory countries to the Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, which defines a refugee as someone fleeing persecution based on “reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion.”

Elsewhere, the platform reprises the traditional fare of prior blueprints, but with a sprinkling of the more hard-edged rhetoric common today. These include preventing states from issuing licenses to unauthorized immigrants, mandatory five-year prison sentences for illegal re-entry, penalizing states and localities that are commonly known as “sanctuary cities,” and recognizing the role of states in immigration enforcement.

The Democratic Platform

Reflecting key concerns of its core constituencies, the Democratic platform centers on expansion of rights for unauthorized immigrants living in the United States and recently arrived children and families from Central America.

Calling for an “urgent” fix of the “broken immigration system,” the platform endorses a path to citizenship for law-abiding unauthorized immigrants. And in the absence of legislation, the platform expresses the party’s commitment to defend and implement the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA) program and expansion of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, both of which were sidelined by the Supreme Court. Consistent with Hillary Clinton’s campaign promise, the platform supports expanding the Obama administration executive actions to others, including parents of DREAMers. It also advocates that DREAMers be eligible for driver’s licenses, in-state tuition, military service, and an expedited pathway to citizenship.

The Democratic platform also focuses on Central American migration, an issue of special concern due to recent increases in the arrivals of unaccompanied children and families at the U.S.-Mexico border. The document advocates a number of protective measures, some of which potentially would go further than the current administration’s actions: working with regional partners to address the root causes of violence in Central America, in-country and third-country refugee and parole processing, and expanding the use of humanitarian parole and Temporary Protected Status (TPS). TPS, which provides work authorization and protection from deportation to certain nationals of countries that have been deemed unsafe for repatriation, is available for qualified Salvadorans and Hondurans who have been in the United States since at least 2001. The program has not been extended to Guatemalans already in the United States. The platform also presses for government-funded counsel for unaccompanied children in deportation proceedings.

The Democratic platform also calls for an end to “raids and roundups” of families and children, and seeks to abolish the use of private prisons and detention centers for immigrant detainees. In a move designed to address the effects of one of the more controversial provisions of the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, the platform urges repeal of the bars that require certain unauthorized immigrants to stay out of the country for three or ten years (based on how long they lived in the United States without authorization) while applying for lawful status. The platform also stresses services and programs for integration of immigrants, included expanded access to English language classes and the promotion of naturalization. Importantly, it would allow all families, regardless of immigration status, to buy into Affordable Care Act exchanges.

Vice Presidential Candidates

Beyond the platforms, the immigration stances of the vice presidential picks are also being scrutinized for a sign of what policies might look like under a new administration. Both Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, the Democratic and Republican vice presidential nominees, respectively, have significant track records on immigration. Pence, who served in the U.S. House of Representatives for 11 years before becoming governor in 2013, gained considerable attention for promoting comprehensive immigration reform legislation in 2006, the Border Integrity and Immigration Reform Act. The bill, which he described as “no-amnesty” reform, would have required unauthorized immigrants to return to their country of origin before being permitted to re-enter the United States as guest workers. Beyond this so-called touchback provision, the legislation included significant border and employer enforcement measures.

During his time in Congress, Pence also sponsored and co-sponsored bills that would have authorized state and local law enforcement agencies to directly enforce U.S. immigration law, currently an exclusively federal domain; eliminated birthright citizenship; reduced total per-country legal immigration by one-half the number of unauthorized immigrants from that country who are residing in the United States; and eliminated the diversity visa lottery. He also favored increasing legal immigration for individuals who complete STEM doctorate degrees within the United States and raising the H-1B visa allotment.

Kaine, the Clinton running mate, was elected to the Senate in 2012 and previously served as Virginia governor. Kaine has expressed support for the expansion of DACA and the implementation of DAPA. In 2015, he argued that DACA allows young immigrants to contribute to their communities and live without fear of being removed. Kaine in 2013 voted in favor of the last immigration reform bill that passed the Senate, and during that debate became the first U.S. senator to deliver a speech entirely in Spanish on the Senate floor; he also supported the DREAM Act.

Significance of Party Platforms

While party platforms are not binding, they can be good indicators of future legislative agendas. For example, a 2013 study published in the Journal of Political Science found that members of Congress historically have voted in accordance with their party platforms more than 80 percent of the time.

Moreover, since the platforms are written by a coalition of party members, they are useful in gauging where party consensus lies. The silence in this year’s Republican platform on the issue of large-scale enforcement against the unauthorized population may, for example, reflect continued disagreement within the party. A Gallup poll out in July found that more Republicans favored a path to citizenship than deporting unauthorized immigrants or building a wall: 76 percent versus 50 percent and 62 percent, respectively.

Platforms can also highlight differences between the present and the future. This year, the Democratic Party had to walk a fine line: supporting the Obama legacy while making the case for how a Clinton presidency would differ. Platform writers did this by pledging support for expansion of the Obama deferred action programs and ending enforcement actions against children and families, for which the administration has received much criticism from within the Democratic Party.

This post originally appeared on Migration Policy Institute. Copyright © 2001-2016 Migration Policy Institute. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

About The Author

Muzaffar Chishti is Director of MPI's office at New York University School of Law. His work focuses on U.S. immigration policy at the federal, state, and local levels; the intersection of labor and immigration law; immigration enforcement; civil liberties; and immigrant integration. Prior to joining MPI, Mr. Chishti was Director of the Immigration Project of the Union of Needletrades, Industrial & Textile Employees (UNITE). Mr. Chishti is Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Immigration Law Center and serves on the boards of the New York Immigration Coalition and the Asian American Federation. He has served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the National Immigration Forum and as a member of the American Bar Association's Coordinating Committee on Immigration. Mr. Chishti has testified extensively on immigration policy issues before Congress and is frequently quoted in the media.

Sarah Pierce is an Associate Policy Analyst for U.S. Programs at the Migration Policy Institute (MPI). Her research expertise includes U.S. legal immigration processes and actors, the employment-based immigration system, and unaccompanied child migrants.

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.