Colorado Voters Care About Immigration. This Is Where The 2020 Democratic Presidential Candidates Stand

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Demonstrators on the campus of Metropolitan State University of Denver protest President Trump’s decision to end the DACA program, Sept. 5, 2017.

The Trump administration's policies along the U.S.-Mexico border and an increased focus on the country's Latinx voting bloc have brought immigration issues into focus for many Americans.

Immigration is one of three issues Gallop identifies as “A-list issues.” (Health care and the economy are the other two.) That means more than 70 percent of Americans said immigration was extremely or very important to them. 

While almost all Americans want something to be done about immigration, they don’t always agree on what should be done. A Pew Research Center study found two-thirds of Americans thought it was both important to create a pathway to citizenship for people who entered the U.S. illegally and to increase security on the U.S.-Mexico border.

The same survey found a sharp partisan divide in how to handle immigration: Democrats largely supported a pathway to citizenship and taking in refugees, while Republicans preferred increasing border security and deportations.

Colorado voters who identified immigration as a top issue ahead of the March 3 Super Tuesday presidential primary election told CPR News they had their eyes on four key immigration topics: creating pathways to citizenship, protecting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals ACT and handling Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

There are almost 800,000 people brought to the U.S. as children who are protected by DACA according to the Pew Research Center. More than a million people, called “Dreamers,” are eligible for the program, but they don’t have a path to citizenship.

As part of the CPR News Voter Voices project, more than 700 people across the state filled out a survey to guide our coverage of the presidential election, and several hundred more met with CPR reporters face-to-face in their communities.

May Ortega/CPR News
Ricardo Rocha runs a produce delivery company called Bonadosa — Spanish for kind-hearted.

Coloradans were not only invested in immigration issues but also often had a personal connection to the policies.

Immigration issues are personal for Ricardo Rocha. He runs a produce delivery company called Bonadosa — Spanish for kind-hearted. He spoke to CPR News as workers packed more than 100 boxes full of food.

“We’re aggregating foods from local farmers, mostly organic, and making it available to people who want to see the values merge between food justice and high-quality foods and providing jobs,” Rocha said.

Rocha was born in Guanajuato, Mexico. His parents brought him to the United States illegally when he was 4 years old, and he was undocumented for the next 17 years. He hadn't been able to reach the financial requirements to gain citizenship at the time.

Then President Donald Trump was elected.

“It was very surreal because we knew there was going to be an issue with undocumented immigrants immediately,” he said. “We knew there was going to be attacks on the undocumented community; just the immigrant community in general.”

We broke down where the candidates stand on these issues:

So Rocha decided he had to protect himself. He was able to get financial support from a relative.

“I felt like I needed to become a U.S. citizen immediately, and so I did,” he said.

Super Tuesday will mark the first time he casts a ballot in a presidential election.

“There’s this huge sense of responsibility to take us back there, where we’re kind, where we’re accepting of others, where we’re opening our arms and welcoming people,” Rocha said.

Margaret Kirk, a voter from Mancos in southwest Colorado, has watched as undocumented immigrant Rosa Sabido spent nearly three years stuck in a church as a sanctuary from deportation.

Kirk said the path to citizenship is too muddled.

“The U.S. has not passed major immigration reform since the Reagan administration,” she said. “And we still use standards developed in the 1960s to determine who we permit to enter the U.S.”

Jordan Ochoa, of Denver, said he knows lots of folks who qualify for DACA, and he thinks they deserve not just protection from deportation, but the full rights of citizenship.

“The youth are our future here. Most of these 1.2 million DACA individuals have been here since they were little kids,” Ochoa said. “They were brought here without knowing what was going on in their lives. But now they’re an integral part of our economy. They’re educated.”

Jackie Chazan-Anderson is part of a family of immigrants. She’s frustrated by the tactics used by immigration enforcement agencies.

“Border Patrol should be a humanitarian mission, not a criminal law enforcement mission,” Chazan-Anderson said. “The Border Patrol should handle illegal crossings through the courts and not be the judge and jury themselves. Retrain the Border Patrol and get rid of ICE.”

Six Democrats Running For President Biden Bloomberg Buttigieg Kl
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News, Kevin Beaty/Denverite, AP
Clockwise from top left, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, Elizaberth Warren

Here’s what the candidates are saying.

Donald Trump has made it a priority to discourage people from entering the U.S. He has pledged to deport all undocumented immigrants, an estimated 11 million people. The president has pledged to continue construction on his border wall, holding immigrants who say they are seeking asylum in detention centers and separating children from their parents at the border.

The Trump administration also instituted a travel ban on some Muslim-majority countries.

Trump rescinded the DACA program in 2017. That was challenged in court, and is now on hold, awaiting a decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. If approved, the administration has said it could deport people now protected under DACA unless Congress agrees to immigration reform. The program’s fate remains up in the air.

Bernie Sanders will go into the South Carolina primary and into Super Tuesday following a decisive victory in Nevada. He’ll be promoting policies that include one of the most progressive immigration plans in the Democratic race.

Sanders says on his website that he wants to pause all deportations until his administration can audit past practices and figure out how to move forward. The Vermont senator also plans on protecting and expanding DACA, creating a pathway to citizenship, decriminalizing crossing the border and ending the family separation policy. Sanders says on his website that he plans to break up ICE and the border patrol and give those responsibilities to other officials.

“It is abolishing the current disastrous immigration system,” Sanders said during a Q and A at the Minnesota State Fair. “And ICE is one small part of that system. But I will say this: We will abolish the ICE raids.” 

Michael Bloomberg will make up for lost time after entering the 2020 race late by pouring money into advertising, including in Colorado. He’ll be touting an immigration plan that mostly aligns with those of the other moderate plans. Bloomberg’s website says the former New York City mayor would create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented Americans and protect the DACA program, as well as end the family separation policy at the border and the construction of the border wall. He promises to “reform” ICE and border patrol, while still prioritizing national security and public safety.

Bloomberg touched on how he wants to balance immigration reform and border security in an interview with the San Diego News-Tribune.

“I think two things are true. One, this country needs more immigrants and we should be out looking for immigrants... at the same time we need to be in control of our borders,” he said. “You can’t rip kids away from their parents, you can’t physically hurt anybody, but you have to have a balance.”

Bloomberg spoke out against sanctuary cities as recently as 2017.

Elizabeth Warren needs to work to drum up support after lackluster performances in the first three primary contests. Promoting her progressive immigration policies will be part of that push

Warren plans to decriminalize crossing the border, create a pathway to citizenship, end partnerships with private detention facilities and end family separation at the border. She also wants to reinstate DACA and allow more refugees seeking asylum into the U.S.

The Massachusetts senator would restructure ICE and border patrol, and wants to return the focus to terrorism and other national security events.

“We need ICE and Customs and Border Patrol just focused on real threats from terrorism, container shipping that comes into the United States, contraband that we have to worry about, fentanyl that we need to be focused on. There are places that we should focus for our safety, but tearing families apart is not that,” Warren said at a town hall in North Carolina.

Joe Biden hopes to regain frontrunner status with a strong showing in South Carolina and in Super Tuesday states. He’ll be touting his moderate immigration plan. On his website, the former vice president pledges to end the family separation policy, stop construction of the border wall, protect DACA and create a pathway to citizenship.

Biden said he will funnel more resources to better leadership and training within ICE. He would not decriminalize crossing the border.

“When people cross the border illegally, it is illegal unless they’re seeking asylum. People should have to get in line. That’s the problem,” Biden said at a CNN debate in July 2019.

Biden has struggled with questions about the record number of immigrants deported during the Obama administration, along with other immigration policies in action during his time as vice president.

Pete Buttigieg will seek to continue building momentum from the first three primary contests as his campaign heads to South Carolina and into Super Tuesday. His immigration plan is part of his push to coalesce more centrist Democrat voters.

On his website, Buttigieg plans to create a pathway for citizenship, end partnerships with private detention centers, end family separation at the border, decriminalize border crossings and restructure ICE and border patrol.

The South Bend, Indiana mayor has also said he wants to protect the DACA program and guarantee citizenship for Dreamers.

“As president, I will commit to a permanent solution that recognizes that Dreamers belong, that protects all Dreamers from deportation and that provides a path to citizenship,” Buttigieg said in a video he posted to Twitter

Amy Klobuchar is looking to make an impact in the next few contests. Some of her moderate immigration policies are laid out in her first 100 days plan.

She wants to stabilize the DACA program, end the family separation policy at the border and allow victims of domestic violence to seek asylum again. Klobuchar also wants to create a path to citizenship and restructure ICE.

“I think what has to change are the policies. And the people that are making these policies are making horrendous decisions,” Klobuchar said. “We are always gonna need immigration enforcement.”

Editor's Note: Due to an editor's error, a previous version of this story had the incorrect date for Super Tuesday. It is March 3.