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Mike Bloomberg’s immigration plan is very moderate

What that means in an era when the issue is more polarized than ever.

Mike Bloomberg announces his new Latino policy “El Paso Adelante” at a campaign rally in El Paso, Texas, on January 29, 2020.
Cengiz Yar/Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

Mike Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor and late entry to the Democratic presidential race, emphasizes the need for humane immigration enforcement and more foreign workers in his immigration plan released on Monday, which largely mirrors those of other moderate candidates.

The Democratic field, including Bloomberg, is in agreement on a few immigration principles: The next president should undo President Trump’s policies, set enforcement priorities rather than indiscriminately prosecute every unauthorized border crossing, and make the immigration system work better for foreigners seeking to come to the US legally.

They would all push Congress to create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants currently living in the US.

They would restore programs that have historically offered legal protection to hundreds of thousands of immigrants that Trump has tried to terminate, including Temporary Protected Status, which the US has conferred on citizens of countries that have suffered from catastrophic events such as natural disasters or armed conflict, and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which has allowed over 700,000 unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children to live and work in the US legally.

They would also reverse Trump’s most controversial policies, including his efforts to build a wall on the southern border and separate immigrant families, as well as his recently expanded travel ban and the Migrant Protection Protocols, otherwise known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy, under which over 60,000 migrants have been sent back to Mexico to wait for decisions on their asylum applications in the US.

Honduran migrants wait to cross the international border bridge from Ciudad Tecun Uman in Guatemala to Ciudad Hidalgo in Mexico, on January 18, 2020.
Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

But there are a few sticking points in which the moderate candidates — former Vice President Joe Biden, former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and now Bloomberg — distinguish themselves from the rest of the pack. They stop short of some of the most progressive reforms, including decriminalizing the act of crossing the border without authorization, and rebuilding US Immigration and Customs Enforcement from the ground up.

Bloomberg is also pushing for protections for immigrant and American workers in tandem, reminiscent of his Democratic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders’s immigration policies. Notably, he would allow for place-based visas so local lawmakers could better respond to fluctuations in the labor market need for immigrant workers.

While Bloomberg recognizes the economic benefits of immigration and has prioritized making immigrants feel safe in their communities regardless of their legal status, he doesn’t want “open borders” (nor do any of the Democrats, despite Trump’s statements to the contrary). Bloomberg has been particularly outspoken about the need to treat immigrants humanely while also securing America’s borders.

“I think two things are true. One, this country needs more immigrants and we should be out looking for immigrants,” he said in a recent interview with the San Diego News-Tribune. “At the same time, we need to be in control of our borders. There’s no country in the world that does not have control of its borders or isn’t at least trying to get control of the borders.”

Bloomberg’s immigration record

Bloomberg presided over a number of immigrant-friendly policies during his time as mayor.

In 2003, he signed a law mandating that New York’s social service agencies offer interpreters to non-native English speakers, which he later extended to every government agency that interacts with the public. That year, he also issued an executive order that prohibited government employees from inquiring about crime victims and witnesses’ immigration status.

In 2011, he took the lead on comprehensive immigration reform, convening a brain trust of state policymakers that has now morphed into the advocacy group New American Economy.

His vision for immigration reform, which he detailed in an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, centered around reforming the employment-based immigration system and attracting foreign workers. He suggested creating a visa for entrepreneurs, giving visas to noncitizen graduates of American universities, and creating a reliable guestworker program.

“The idea is simple: Reform the way we attract and keep talented and hard-working people from abroad to better promote economic growth,” he wrote.

In 2013, he signed two bills limiting New York City’s cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the reach of the Obama-era “Secure Communities” program, under which ICE could access local authorities’ criminal databases and request that police detain immigrants they believed to be deportable. The bills prevented local NYC authorities from surrendering immigrants to ICE who didn’t have criminal records or had prior convictions for only minor offenses.

But his public statements have at times appeared at odds with those policies. In an interview on MSNBC in 2017, Bloomberg railed against sanctuary cities, claiming that they sow chaos:

“You cannot ... have everybody deciding which laws they should obey,” he said. “The law is the law. You should obey the law and if you don’t like the law, get your legislative body to change the law. But society breaks down if we can all decide what’s right and what’s wrong.”

A spokesperson for his campaign told Vox that Bloomberg still stands behind those views, but doesn’t think that causing immigrants to fear dropping off their children at school or report crimes will make the general public any safer. He is continuing to prioritize sensible immigration enforcement to mitigate threats to public safety and national security, they said.

Bloomberg also came under fire in 2011 for sanctioning a years-long Muslim surveillance program administered by the New York Police Department. Undercover officers monitored mosques, schools, businesses, and restaurants, subjecting Muslims to video surveillance and photographing their license plates, before the city eventually agreed to halt the program as part of a settlement with victims in 2014.

While the program didn’t target immigrants specifically, immigrant advocates denounced the program as a form of profiling and a blow to religious freedom — even calling for Bloomberg to apologize publicly after he launched his presidential campaign.

What Bloomberg’s plan would do

The former mayor would use immigration detention sparingly, instead enrolling immigrants in programs offering alternatives to detention; he would also end for-profit detention facilities, which have been the site of some of the most egregious abuses of immigrants in recent years.

But like his moderate counterparts, Bloomberg doesn’t want to overhaul CBP and ICE, which are the primary agencies responsible for arresting and detaining immigrants — he would work within the existing enforcement system.

He says he would investigate abuses at ICE and CBP as well as refocus the agencies’ enforcement priorities, targeting only immigrants who threaten public safety while avoiding raids on “sensitive locations” like schools and places of worship. He would also implement a system to track every noncitizen who travels in and out of the US with modernizations to ports of entry.

Bloomberg would push Congress to improve the employment-based immigration system — but that would require bipartisan support, an unlikely prospect given that gridlock on immigration issues has never been worse.

As part of that goal, however, he would get rid of per-country visa caps, which have made it much more difficult for Chinese and Indian immigrants, in particular, to immigrate to the US. He would also nix the five-year waiting period for green card holders to obtain health insurance and food assistance, keep the costs associated with applying for citizenship low, and aid immigrant integration by promoting voter registration at naturalization ceremonies, for example.

He is calling for mandatory employment authorization verification in conjunction to make it easier for businesses to access temporary workers, particularly in the hospitality and agriculture industries. He’d raise temporary workers’ wages and give them a path to a green card, protecting them from exploitation. And he’d create a visa category for entrepreneurs.

Bloomberg would make it easier for immigrants to naturalize and assimilate, driving down the 700,000 backlogs of naturalization applications and providing services such as legal aid and English-language instruction.

He emphasizes that he would preserve humanitarian protections for those who really need them, including vulnerable populations like refugees and migrant children — not migrants seeking better economic opportunities in the US.

He would increase the number of asylum officers and immigration judges to speed up review of asylum applications and decrease the over 1-million-case backlog in the immigration courts. And he’d raise the annual cap on refugee admissions from 18,000 to 125,000, exceeding Obama-era levels.