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Immigration Reform and the 2016 Presidential Election

By: Charles R. Venator-Santiago, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and El Instituto, University of Connecticut


Charles R. Venator-Santiago, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and El Instituto. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Charles R. Venator-Santiago, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science and El Instituto. (Bri Diaz/UConn Photo)

Donald Trump’s infamous but improbable “wall” and Hilary Clinton’s proposed quick path to citizenship have placed immigration policy and its possible reforms in the center of the 2016 presidential election. Further than simply its effects on the economy or on access to social services, the immigration debate has become a proxy for the kind of America each candidate envisions.

While Trump has used nativist themes to mobilize the Republican party’s traditional base and to recruit new voters, Clinton has embraced inclusive positions within a broader immigration reform narrative, an approach that appears to be working with the Democratic Party base and a number of independent voters. Although the two certainly differ on issues, like children of undocumented immigrants and citizenship options, there are many unexpected overlaps between the candidates’ immigration ideals.

The recent history of immigration law

Central to the candidates’ positions is a desire to reform what they both see as a broken immigration system of laws and policies. A series of immigration laws enacted between the mid-1980s and the aftermath of the September 11 attacks frame the current immigration system. Critics argue that the broken immigration system is a result of problems created by these and other immigration laws, and the failure of Congress to address these issues in a changing immigration environment.

For example, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) included amnesty provisions making it easier for immigrants, both documented and undocumented, to naturalize to avoid deportation. However, the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 (IIRAIRA) expanded the number of deportable offenses, while making it harder for accused immigrants to challenge their deportations. This law also allowed the government to retroactively prosecute and deport immigrants for past violations.

The Patriot Act continued to expand the scope of these deportable offenses, and made it possible to use so-called “secret evidence” to detain and deport a large number of immigrants. These laws contributed to a perception that undocumented immigrants could be treated like criminals and terrorists.

Congress has not enacted legislation addressing the conflicts created by the clash between laws that foster the criminalization of immigrants who may have committed minor offenses, and other laws that foster the incorporation of immigrants – for example, through family reunification programs. So, many people look to the presidential candidates to set a tone for possible upcoming legislation.

Profiling, borders, and deportation

Perhaps surprisingly, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trunp overlap in their records on profiling. Trump regularly defends the use of immigrant profiling to identify criminals and terrorists. Although Clinton has denounced Trump’s stance, as a Senator she voted to support the Patriot Act, a law that included a profiling provision for Muslim men. Trump’s call for immigrant profiling amplifies a key provision of the Patriot Act.

Both candidates also defend the strengthening of a border separating the United States from Mexico. Trump’s immigration proposals include the creation of an impenetrable border – his infamous but improbable “wall” – that will separate both countries. Clinton has denounced the nativist tone of Trump’s border rhetoric, but has also promised to strengthen U.S. border security, using an increase in border security agents and monitoring technologies such as cameras and drones.

venator-webThe candidates’ proposals are also similar in the criminal deportation of immigrants. Rather alarmingly, Trump continues to argue that immigrants are disproportionately more prone to violent crimes like rape and murder, and has called for the streamlining of immigrant deportations. He also promised to fortify the Federal immigration system to challenge state and local immigration laws and policies contrary to his plan.

While Clinton has broadly denounced Trump’s positions, she has not challenged the IIRAIRA criminal deportation provisions, signed in 1996 by President Bill Clinton. The IIRAIRA also contained provisions penalizing undocumented immigrant children growing up in the U.S.: specifically, it contains a penalty for state institutions of higher education who allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition. In many cases this makes it impossible for undocumented students to pursue a college degree, a precondition for economic mobility in the U.S.

The economy and the children

Where the real differences start to emerge is in the details of the candidates’ actual immigration proposals. Trump has argued that immigrants, especially under-educated and undocumented immigrants, pose a threat to the economy, because they take American jobs, use too many resources, and threaten the economic growth of the United States. His proposals are murky, but seem to call for the enforcement of IRCA penalties on companies who hire immigrants rather than citizens, and who adopt policies that give preferential treatment to native or citizen workers.

Clinton calls for policies that will help immigrants become a legal part of U.S. economy, including the facilitation of visas, allowing immigrants to purchase health care under Obamacare, and making it possible for immigrants to join economic markets. Her policy proposal echoes the prevailing economic research on the contributions of immigrants to the U.S. labor market and economy: that immigrant workers tend to create jobs and raise wages for under-educated native workers, and that their aggregate financial contributions to the U.S. economy outweigh the costs. Ironically, given Trump’s reliance on his business acumen as a selling point, Clinton’s positions would likely be the most beneficial to the U.S. economy.

But the clearest difference between the candidates is on the question of normalizing the so-called Dreamers, or the children of undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States by their parents. In the absence of Congressional legislation addressing the Dreamers’ status, President Obama has issued various executive orders, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), protecting them from deportations and enabling them to be formally incorporated into society. Clinton not only defends President Obama’s policies on the subject, but has made it clear that the incorporation of Dreamers into society will be a priority in her administration. Trump has unequivocally stated that he will terminate these policies and treat Dreamers as illegal aliens.

So, why do these debates matter? The simple answer is that Latinos are in a position to influence the Electoral College in key states of the Union. While immigration is generally not a top priority for Latinos in the U.S., Trump’s use of nativist and anti-immigrant rhetoric continues to galvanize Latino support for Clinton. Latinos are a sizable population in swing states like California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, and Colorado. Latinos are in a position to influence the electoral outcomes in states, and therefore could have a major effect on the outcome of this election.


Charles R. Venator-Santiago will speak on immigration and the election at the CLAS College Experience in Storrs on October 21.


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