Immigrants in Iowa continue to play a greater role in the state’s economy. In some of these immigrant communities, there’s increased fear because of tighter enforcement of immigration laws under President Donald Trump. Democratic presidential candidates are running against his messages. They’re also proposing solutions to a system many people believe is broken.
In the middle of the World Food and Music Festival in downtown Des Moines back in September, nearly 150 people became new United States citizens. They came from close to 40 countries, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Guatemala, Liberia and Slovenia.
The crowd pledged their loyalty to the U.S. with the Oath of Allegiance. A video message from President Trump played for the crowd.
“You have pledged allegiance to America, and when you give your love and loyalty to American, she returns her love and loyalty to you,” Trump said in the video message.
People were called up one by one to get their naturalization certificates, their proof of citizenship. The new citizens each shook hands with the judge who presided over the ceremony. Some took a quick picture with him.
“I’m so happy!” said Biak Thakio, who is originally from Burma. “I’m so happy to become an American citizen. It’s always my dream to become one. And thank you. American!”
The process to become a citizen can take years for some people. But it’s out of reach for millions of undocumented immigrants living in this country. Democratic candidates, like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, want to change that.
“We need a pathway to citizenship for the people who are here to stay,” said Warren during a town hall at Drake University in October.
Candidates say that the immigration system is broken. With nearly a million pending cases in immigration court, there aren’t enough judges to handle them. A 2013 bill that would have helped millions of undocumented people become citizens failed to make it through both chambers of Congress.
“We know that immigration law is federal law,” said Suzie Pritchett, a law professor and the director of clinics and experiential education at Drake University. “It’s law that Congress has kind of exclusive power to set and regulate. It’s largely immune from judicial review in the other ways that most federal legislation is.”
Yet President Trump has been able to affect immigration through his use of executive orders.
“He really has taken the authority he has as the executive and really pushed the boundaries of what it means to enforce immigration law,” Pritchett said.
Democratic presidential candidates are challenging Trump’s executive actions. They want to end family separation at the border and what they call unnecessary immigrant detention. They've talked about reinstating Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA, an Obama administration program that protected immigrant youth from being deported. Trump ended “DACA” by executive order in 2017. It’s now caught up in the courts. Julian Castro defended DACA at an October League of United Latin American Citizens presidential candidate forum in Des Moines.
“If the Supreme Court rules against DACA, and I’m elected, I will immediately have my Department of Justice work on a work-around that, so we can find another way to do it immediately by executive order,” Castro said.
But some voters want the candidates to do more than just react to President Trump. Vanessa Marcano-Kelly of Des Moines became a U.S. citizen earlier this year. She’s originally from Venezuela, and now works as a certified interpreter and freelance translator.
Marcano-Kelly has endorsed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. She said she wants a candidate who plans to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but also one who looks to address the root causes of immigration.
“We need to be asking that question: Why are people coming in droves? Why is there a crisis at the border right now of refugees and asylum seekers?” Marcano-Kelly said.
That’s a focus for Sen. Sanders. Sanders says people from Honduras and El Salvador are leaving these countries because of drug violence and poverty, and they’re making dangerous journeys to the U.S. He wants the U.S. to work with leaders in these countries to improve peoples’ lives.
“People would rather stay in their own countries with their own families with their own language rather than travel 1500 miles,” Sanders said during the LULAC forum.
One of the more divisive proposals on immigration is decriminalizing illegal border crossings. Five of the candidates say there should be some criminal penalties, but others like Julian Castro want this to be a smaller violation, like a parking ticket.
“Under my administration, you would still be held accountable for that, but in a civil court, not a criminal court,” Castro said during the LULAC forum. “And we would work so that undocumented immigrants are on a pathway to citizenship, as long as they haven’t committed a serious crime.”
Despite differences, candidates are aligned in putting people already here without legal status on a pathway to citizenship.