The Buttigieg immigration plan: Virtue and economy

The Buttigieg immigration plan: Virtue and economy
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News flash: Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegReuters poll finds Sanders cutting Biden national lead to single digits Biden says he'll adopt plans from Sanders, Warren Buttigieg guest-hosts for Jimmy Kimmel: 'I've got nothing else going on' MORE is not Bernie SandersBernie SandersCoronavirus makes the campaign season treacherous for Joe Biden Biden could be picking the next president: VP choice more important than ever Democrats eye additional relief checks for coronavirus MORE. The two candidates are different in almost every way. Unsurprisingly, their plans for immigration reform are also different. I wrote about Sanders’s plan previously, noting how the Vermont senator already has given up on Congress and would use a series of executive orders to implement his policy goals. What’s different about the former South Bend, Ind., mayor’s plan?

Buttigieg’s plan looks to reform and improve the current immigration system, rather than burn it down. Die-hard Sanders supporters may hate it, feeling that it doesn’t go far enough and doesn’t immediately address some very real injustices. President TrumpDonald John TrumpHealth insurers Cigna, Humana waive out-of-pocket costs for coronavirus treatment Puerto Rico needs more federal help to combat COVID-19 Fauci says April 30 extension is 'a wise and prudent decision' MORE’s loyal supporters may hate it because it doesn’t reflect their vision of a future American society built on immigration restriction and enforcement. 

Fair enough. But most Americans don’t fall into either group.


Most Americans still believe that the democratic process can work, and that structured lawful immigration can be a net positive for our nation. Buttigieg’s plan shows one way that middle-of-the-road sentiment could translate into action.

Buttigieg’s plan, if implemented, would make the immigration system fairer, clearer and more manageable. It would modernize the outdated family immigration system and reduce the backlog of family-based visas that make some family members of U.S. citizens wait more than 10 years to immigrate. It would eliminate the arbitrary yearly cap on visas for immigrant crime victims who cooperate with law enforcement. It would keep children who cannot be reunited with one or both parents — so-called “special immigrant juveniles” — from being deported while their cases are being considered. 

The plan contains a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and encouragement for green card holders to seek naturalization, reasoning rightly that with citizenship comes responsibility and civic engagement. And it would eliminate the three- and 10-year immigration bars for unlawful presence that break up many families and keep people in the shadows. These parts are similar to Sanders’s plan, if not as dramatic.

Unlike Sanders’s plan, however, Buttigieg’s plan recognizes the importance of business and employment-based immigration to grow America’s economy. It would modernize the employment-based immigration system and align it with the needs of America’s growing economy. For example, Buttigieg’s plan resets the number of employment-based visas every two years, based on the needs of the economy, rather than the current outdated system of inflexible quotas, caps and monthly visa bulletins where visa availability ebbs and flows like the tide. 

It proposes a new “community renewal” visa for immigrants to help strengthen and revitalize communities. It would revive and expand visa programs to provide doctors and nurses to underserved areas. It supports immigrant entrepreneurs to help them create jobs. It would help those who earn college degrees stay in the United States and use those skills to build our economy. These are commonsense reforms that are long overdue. 


Buttigieg’s plan for immigration enforcement returns to the “priority” approach of the Obama years, where the government targets its resources against serious criminal offenders, traffickers and recent arrivals without valid asylum or humanitarian claims. Like other plans, it envisions an independent immigration court system with real access to counsel, a vast improvement over the current system where the immigration courts function as policy arms of the administration.

It proposes concrete steps to reduce the backlog in immigration courts, which will help end the years-long waits for hearings. With respect to the southern U.S. border, Buttigieg’s plan would end family separation and ensure that all screening for asylum claims is done by trained asylum officers, rather than Customs and Border Patrol officials. The tone and tenor of the plan shows a commitment to improving the process and treating people with dignity, which is a far cry from the way things work under the Trump administration. 

Finally, Buttigieg’s plan looks to reclaim America’s leadership role in the world. It would end discriminatory “travel bans” that fall disproportionately on Muslims and increase the number of refugees the United States accepts to at least 125,000 in the first year (a significant number, but fewer than the number of refugees admitted during Ronald Reagan’s first year as president). On a larger scale, Buttigieg’s plan recognizes that the most effective way to reduce the number of refugees and asylum-seekers is for America to help improve conditions in their home countries. 

And in keeping with the themes of modernization and economic growth, the plan would modernize and improve the visa adjudication process at U.S. embassies so that decisions can be made more quickly and businesses can access the skilled workers they need.

No plan is perfect, this one included. Some voters will ask where the money would come from. That’s a fair question, and one not answered in Buttigieg’s plan. But any reform of the immigration system will cost money in the short run — and reform is long overdue. Currently, the administration’s partial border wall is paid for by billions of dollars stripped from congressional appropriations for our military. That’s not a sustainable answer. 

Ultimately, Congress will have to decide which costs of immigration reform are worthwhile. However, any fair assessment of the current system shows that things can’t continue the way they are. You can only patch an old tire so many times before it blows. 

Will a President Buttigieg have a chance to implement this plan in 2021? Not likely. Buttigieg probably won’t be the Democratic nominee, let alone president, because moderation is not what the voters appear to want in 2020. However, when the next president grapples with the fundamental issues of immigration reform, he (or she) should pay close attention to this page from Buttigieg’s playbook. Moderation may not win elections, but it does provide a path to lasting change. 

We as a nation used to know this basic truth. If we want to find our way back from our current fractured society, we need to pay attention to plans that can bring us together to solve problems. Good ideas are good ideas, no matter what the source. Let’s hope that the next president remembers that.

Martin W. Lester is an immigration attorney based in Chattanooga, Tenn. Follow him on Twitter @LesterLawTN.