Where the Republican presidential candidates stand on immigration
The historic numbers of immigrants arriving at the southern border and seeking shelter in cities like New York and Chicago has been making headlines for more than a year. American voters report mixed feelings: 47% have said immigration is a major concern, but two-thirds of Americans continue to see it as beneficial to the country.
The Biden administration's immigration policy has been described as a "carrot and stick" approach: punish migrants who enter the U.S. without documents, and encourage folks to apply to enter legally. In order to alleviate pressure at the southern border, the president has also expanded legal programs for immigrants from countries like Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti, Nicaragua and Ukraine. Many advocates have said asylum seekers fleeing persecution can't wait to apply to enter legally; meanwhile Republicans have accused Biden of executive overreach and are suing in federal court.
Biden's policy has had mixed results. This year, there has been a record rise in people displaced globally, and an unprecedented number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border: more than 2.5 million.
But those numbers only tell part of the story. Overall, the number of people crossing the border without permission outside legal ports of entry has decreased since September. The number of migrants arriving at legal points of entry has more than doubled. More immigrants than ever before are being placed in deportation proceedings when they go through ports of entry. What this means is people are given a "notice to appear" in immigration court at a future date that could be within months or even years later. As NPR has reported, the system, which has an extensive backlog, has the feel of "a revolving door."
What happens to immigrants once they are in the country has led to intense friction between the White House and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle. Earlier this year, several Republican governors began bussing migrants to Democratic-led cities like New York and Chicago. New York alone has received over 150,000 migrants in the last 18 months, and butted heads with the Biden administration, saying its shelter system cannot handle any more. Migrant destination cities like Chicago are finding their homelessness problem compounded.
The administration has said its hands are tied without Congress coming together on immigration. Republican presidential candidates have said Biden's policies have been disastrous, and made a harder stance on immigration the centerpiece of their campaigns. Notably, the Republican frontrunner, former President Donald Trump, has proposed a historic, radical shift in U.S. immigration policies. He has not only promised to reinstate some of the more controversial policies enacted during his presidency, he's also vowed to expand them. Other Republican candidates' proposals essentially mirror his. As one Los Angeles Times columnist recently described it, immigration promises are a "contest to out-Trump Trump."
What border security policies should the U.S. put in place?
At the heart of Republican promises are expanding the immigration detention system, strengthening Border Patrol, deputizing local law enforcement, deploying military to the border, and large scale deportations. One of the main concerns they have expressed has been fentanyl coming over the border — although, as NPR has reported, virtually no migrants or asylum seekers have been caught smuggling fentanyl, and it mostly comes through legal ports of entry.
Trump has said he will expedite deportations at the border and conduct "the largest deportation operation" in history, modeled after President Dwight Eisenhower's mass deportation program of 1954. He has also said he would not rule out the practice of family separation at the border, which caused widespread outrage and lawsuits during his presidency — the administration eventually had to rescind the policy. However, a federal judge recently banned this policy for the next eight years.
The New York Times has reported Trump plans to expand Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities in order to hold people awaiting processing and court appearances. During his presidency, Trump advocated for increased spending on border protection. While he has not clarified his position in this campaign cycle, Trump has said he will give the National Guard and local law enforcement authority to arrest and deport undocumented immigrants.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has said, if elected, he too will expand detention. He will increase pay for Border Patrol agents, and recruit former military and police officers. One of the hallmarks of DeSantis' governorship in Florida has been a hardline stance on immigration, which he has called an "invasion." He has criticized Trump for not finishing the southern border wall and promised to do so, saying "we need to build a wall across the southern border. I'll get it done and I'll make... Mexico is supposed to pay for it, remember?"
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley has often touted her own hardline immigration policies. While she hasn't really said much on deputizing the National Guard or local law enforcement to assist with immigration enforcement, she certainly has the track record for it: using local police forces was one of the hallmarks of her career as governor. Scholars have pointed out that the legality of the military engaging in domestic law enforcement would be questionable.
She has said she would add 25,000Border Patrol and ICE agents, specifically taking back the additional federal budget allocated for the IRS. Still, she has positioned herself as the more middle-of -the-road conservative for Republicans who want an alternative to Trump.
She has also said she supports deporting immigrants who have arrived in the country during President Biden's term, including through legal programs. "Instead of 'catch-and-release,' we'll go to catch and deport," is a common applause line at her rallies. But Haley has also said she would consider leniency towards undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. longer: "For those that have been here longer than that, we've got to start seeing, who is it? How long have they been here? Have they been vetted? Have they paid taxes? Have they been working? And figure out who else is out there." Haley has pointed to her own experience as the daughter of immigrants. "What I know is my parents came here legally, they put in the time, they put in the price, they are offended by those that are coming illegally. We can't let them skip the line."
In the most recent Republican debate, Vivek Ramaswamy pushed back on any kind of consideration for undocumented immigrants who have been in the U.S. for longer periods of time. "What about all of the illegals who are already here?" he asked. Ramaswamy too is advocating for deploying the military to protect the southern border, and deputizing local law enforcement. "There are one million then officials, law enforcement officials in this country, and against that backdrop, we absolutely have the ability to deport anybody who's in this country illegally." Novelly, Ramaswamy also announced support for a border wall at the northern border with Canada, something no other candidate has remarked upon.
Ramaswamy and DeSantis have also pledged to work to close the Darien Gap, a treacherous jungle region between Colombia and Panama through which many migrants travel on the journey to the southern border. "Close the Darien Gap through threats of sanctions/tariffs against Colombia, Panama, & Costa Rica," Ramaswamy has said, "which have for years controlled the flow of migrants." This is not an entirely new stance. There have been talks of the Biden administration working with local governments to stop the flow of migrants through the gap.
Perhaps the more moderate position on immigration has come from former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Christie has said "we are not going to be able to apprehend and detain our way out of this problem." He has, however, indicated that he would also "send the National Guard to the southern border," as he said earlier this year in an interview with CNN. In fact, he's promised this would be his first move if elected president. "No matter how hard our Customs [agents] and Border Patrol agents and our Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are working, they need back-up." To do that, Christie supports building the border wall. "At this point, I think we've started to build it; let's finish it... And — and we've put away with the fiction that Mexico is going to pay for it. Right? So that would be one of the priorities."
Should the U.S. military go into Mexico to fight drug cartels?
One of the most heavy handed promises to come from Republicans is military action in Mexico in order to confront the narco-trafficking problem. It is not the first time Republicans have considered using military force inside Mexico to attack cartels. According to Trump's former Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the former president proposed sending missiles to Mexico to target cartels.
The idea has gained traction among Republican candidates, and outraged the Mexican government (there has not been a U.S. military incursion into Mexico in over a century). Still, DeSantis has pledged to "change the rules of engagement on the border" and send Special Forces into Mexico to confront drug cartels. Ramaswamy has said he will attempt to negotiate with the Mexican government, but if there is no cooperation, he will send troops in. "It's like if you have a neighbor who has a dog that comes over to your yard and keeps biting your family members repeatedly. If they keep doing that, at some point you can take a shotgun and shoot that dog," said Ramaswamy a few months ago on Fox News. "You know what you tell the Mexican president? Haley supports a special operation in Mexico, saying earlier this year, "either you do it or we do it. But we are not going to let all of this lawlessness continue to happen." Christie has said he will give Mexico 90 days to take action against cartels, or take matters into his own hands.
Experts have pointed out that sending troops to Mexico without that nation's authorization could be a diplomatic disaster, to which Trump recently responded, "Mexico is sending their troops into our country in the form of illegal aliens that are killing people, in many cases, that are causing lots of disease and lots of problems." The conflation of migrants with drug trafficking — especially the smuggling of fentanyl — is a constant theme amongst all Republican candidates. It's also categorically untrue: the vast majority of illicit fentanyl — close to 90% — is seized at official border crossings. Immigration authorities say nearly all of that is smuggled by people who are legally authorized to cross the border, and more than half by U.S. citizens. Virtually none is seized from migrants seeking asylum.
Should the U.S. end birthright citizenship for children of undocumented immigrants born in the U.S.?
This is one of the most controversial promises on the campaign trail, albeit not a new one. DeSantis, Trump and Ramaswamy have said that they will take action to end birthright citizenship for children born in the U.S. to undocumented immigrants. As a reminder, Trump wanted to do this during his presidency. Haley has echoed this stance, though with specific distinction: "For the 5 million people who've entered our country illegally, I am against birthright citizenship," she told Fox News in July. "For those that are in this country legally, of course, I think we go according to the Constitution, and that's fine."
Legal scholars have pointed out that it is unlikely this would be possible, given the 14th Amendment, which grants citizenship to all persons born or naturalized in the United States. Ramaswamy has recently balked at this interpretation, saying it's a misreading of the amendment. "The left will howl about the Constitution and the 14th Amendment. The difference between me and them is I've actually read the 14th Amendment... if the kid of a Mexican diplomat doesn't enjoy birthright citizenship, then neither does the kid of an illegal immigrant who broke the law to come here."
How should the U.S. handle asylum claims and refugee status?
Asylum seekers arriving at the southern border in record numbers have driven the national immigration debate in recent years, so this is a focal point for most Republican candidates, who have said they will limit access to asylum significantly.
Ramaswamy went so far as to call the refugee problem "fake." In October, he posted on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, "TRUTH: we need to admit that the U.S. has a self-created fake refugee problem that is *systemic.* You can't cure a cancer until you acknowledge its existence."
Others are playing silly political "gotcha" games on what to do with Gazan refugees, but here's the TRUTH: we need to admit that the U.S. has a self-created fake refugee problem that is *systemic.* You can't cure a cancer until you acknowledge its existence. As President, I will…— Vivek Ramaswamy (@VivekGRamaswamy) October 17, 2023
Ramaswamy then promised to "implement an asylum & refugee moratorium until our borders are fully secured and our asylum laws are updated - period." Ramaswamy has also indicated he would end Temporary Protected Status (TPS), which offers temporary protection from deportation to certain designated groups fleeing unsafe conditions.
Trump, DeSantis, Ramaswamy and Haley have all said they would reinstate "remain in Mexico," a Trump-era policy which forced asylum-seekers to wait in Mexico for their court date. "We'll go back to the 'Remain in Mexico' policy because, guess what, no one wants to remain in Mexico," Haley has said. It was a controversial policy as migrants were staying in border towns and cities, often controlled by Mexican drug cartels.
DeSantis has also said he will reinstate the Asylum Cooperative Agreements with Northern Triangle Countries, a Trump-era agreement with Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala that would allow the U.S. to send asylum seekers to these countries and bar them from applying for protection in the U.S.
What should the U.S. do about public funding allocated for immigrants?
Several Republican candidates are promising to cut off types of aid and government assistance for immigrant communities.
One DeSantis promise that has received less attention is a plan to cut funding for NGOs that are encouraging mass migration on behalf of the Biden administration." He has also pledged to remove undocumented immigrants from U.S. Census apportionment calculations, which provides the data by which federal funding decisions are made, as well as how congressional seats are drawn.
Immigrants and the census was a constant battle for President Trump, who has pledged to stop immigrants from accessing any type of welfare benefits. "It's all being paid for by the American taxpayer."
In a similar vein, defunding so-called sanctuary cities, or municipalities with protections for undocumented immigrants, has been an ongoing theme for all candidates. As governor of Florida, DeSantis signed a bill in 2019 prohibiting sanctuary policies. He and Ramaswamy have said that they will penalize sanctuary cities, by cutting off millions of dollars in grants. Haley has also said she will "make sure we defund sanctuary cities once and for all."
Should the U.S. enact a ban on entry from Muslim-majority nations?
With the current national attention on the Israel-Hamas conflict and ongoing protests nationwide on both sides of the issue, several candidates have called on the federal government to revoke visas from students who have supported Palestine or participated in anti-Israel protests.
Then-President Trump's executive order banning entry into the U.S. by people from certain Muslim-majority nations caused international uproar. Trump has said that he will reinstate and expand this policy if elected in 2024. "No longer will we allow dangerous lunatics, haters, bigots, and maniacs to get residency in our country. We're not going to let them stay here. If you empathize with radical Islamic, terrorists and extremists, you're disqualified. You're just disqualified."
Trump has also indicated he will institute ideological screenings for visas. "We will revoke the student visas of radical anti-American and antisemitic foreigners at our colleges and universities and we will send them straight back home."
DeSantis, who recently ordered Florida's university system to shut down a pro-Palestinian group, supports deporting students he deems supportive of Hamas, saying they "don't have a right to be here on a visa. You don't have a right to be studying in the United States." He's said if elected president, he will expel those students from the country. Beyond just students, DeSantis has said "there needs to be limits on immigration and we should not be importing people from cultures that are hostile... we're not taking anyone from Gaza because of the antisemitism and because they reject... effect American culture, so we've got to get smart about this."
As NPR has reported, it is already quite difficult for Palestinians to come to the US as refugees: since 2014, only around 500 have arrived.
Haley hasdisagreed somewhat with the Trump administration's ban. Her take: "It's not about a religion, it's about a fact that certain countries are dangerous and are threats to us... I don't think that you have a straight-up Muslim ban as much as you look at the countries that have terrorist activities that want to hurt Americans. You can ban those people from those countries," she said. She pointed to recent migrants coming across the southern border from countries such as Iran, Yemen or Lebanon, which she called "areas where they say death to America."
How can the U.S. immigration system help with the country's labor shortage?
One of the major demands from cities like Chicago and New York, which received large influxes of migrants, was that the federal government help expedite work authorizations, and thus move people out of the shelter system quicker. The cry of "Let them work!" became ubiquitous in New York Mayor Eric Adams' speeches. Business leaders have also been demanding policies that help alleviate labor shortages. As NPR has reported, the process of getting a work authorization is complicated for migrants and asylum seekers, and this often pushes them into exploitative informal labor. It also means industries in dire need of workers can't legally hire them.
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