Two days before Bernie Sanders’s decisive victory in the Nevada caucuses on Saturday, his campaign changed one of its key positions on immigration. Where previously the Vermont senator had promised a moratorium on deporting undocumented immigrants “until a thorough audit of past practices and policies is complete,” his campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, clarified on Thursday that there would be exceptions: “We’re talking about … violent criminals [sitting] in jail or prison right now, upon their, the end of whatever sentence they may currently have, they would be deported,” he told BuzzFeed News. The shift would have a tiny numerical impact and still spare the vast majority of undocumented people. But unlike Sanders’s prior position, it retains the philosophical underpinnings of today’s punitive approach, which persecutes people based on their immigration status — a tack that many immigrant-rights advocates have long been trying to steer officials away from. It’s a rightward lurch for a candidate whose immigration policy still remains among the most progressive in the field. Sanders has called for both ICE and CBP to be broken up, and for making illegal border crossings a civil offense rather than a criminal one.
But the shift also leaves an opening for Joe Biden. As the Nevada caucus results poured in and the former vice-president’s distant second-place finish seemed imminent, his campaign released a joint statement with Latino Victory Fund, an influential political action committee that endorsed Biden earlier last week, committing to a total moratorium on deportations during his first 100 days as president. This seemed to contradict a claim made just hours earlier by one of Biden’s campaign advisers to BuzzFeed News. “[Enforcement] efforts will be narrowly targeted to those who commit a felony offense in the United States or who present a national security threat,” the adviser reportedly said. Before this weekend, Biden showed little interest in extending any leniency to immigrants with felony convictions. At times, he greeted the suggestion with flip dismissiveness. “You should vote for Trump,” the former vice-president told activist Carlos Rojas at a town hall event in November, after Rojas called on him to halt removals. The urgings of Latino Victory, paired with Sanders’s strong showing among Latino voters in Nevada, seem to have occasioned a conditional reversal. When votes are on the line, few principled stances remain nonnegotiable for long, and Biden is no exception.
But perhaps more uncanny than politicians playing politics is that even the most imaginative among them have trouble escaping a rigid dichotomy that casts people who commit crimes as beyond redemption. A version of this logic already exacerbates the dismal conditions in America’s prisons. Corrections systems in Alabama and Mississippi have come under national scrutiny and federal investigation of late for failing to spare prisoners the most ghastly forms of inhumanity. High rates of suicide, murder, overcrowding, and inmates forced to sleep on floors and hang food from ceilings to keep vermin away highlight the attitude that informs them, which is that those who do crimes should be locked up for as long as possible and as far outside the public view as possible. It holds that those convicted necessarily forfeit their right to full participation in American society, often in perpetuity. The crucial distinction between this approach and those which Biden and Sanders have each proposed is that theirs punish people to a greater degree based on their parentage.
And deportation is indeed punishment. Sending a person to live in Honduras or El Salvador who grew up in the U.S. and has no meaningful connections to their country of ancestral origin simply attaches a sudden life reset, often marked by the kind of economic precariousness and violence they or their forebears fled when they migrated north, to the end of an already-cruel encounter with the U.S. legal system. Paradoxically, in many cases, it punishes people for crimes they themselves didn’t even commit — as with those who are undocumented because their parents brought them to the U.S. illegally — and which candidates like Sanders have otherwise insisted shouldn’t even be treated as crimes. It understands crime as exportable rather than treatable through rehabilitative methods, and makes this determination based solely on whether a person’s parents are American-born. Its relative arbitrariness and illogic fuels objections submitted by left-leaning immigration reformers and libertarian pundits alike.
There is, of course, a compelling political rationale for taking the position that Biden and Sanders have. Even among many immigrants and progressive reformers, the notion that people who commit crimes should be the exception to policies that promote amnesty, moratoriums, or paths to citizenship for the undocumented is uncontroversial. “I don’t think there’s a member of Congress — Republican or Democrat — who believes that if somebody commits an egregious crime, that they shouldn’t be deported,” Representative Tony Cardenas, a Mexican-American congressman from Los Angeles and the son of immigrants, told the L.A. Times in 2017. “Get rid of the bad ones, I say,” another Angeleno told the Times. “Deport the criminals and leave the rest of us alone, the ones who are working and don’t do anything.” Candidates will have to push further than this if they wish to truly challenge the orthodoxy upon which today’s system is built, which says that undocumented people deserve especially punitive treatment simply because they are undocumented.