Alert: View AILA’s Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resource Center

Where Do the Candidates Stand on Immigration Detention?


We asked the 2020 presidential candidates where they stood on immigration detention.

  1. Do you support the reduction of immigration detention, including the reduction in U.S. taxpayer funding of immigration detention?

AILA's Position:

The United States needs a sensible immigration enforcement system that upholds the rule of law and is based on clearly articulated goals and priorities. Recognizing the unprecedented level of resources the federal government has committed to immigration enforcement – the combined budgets of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) exceed $20 billion – these agencies must be accountable and transparent to the public. Abuses and unlawful practices by agency personnel cannot be tolerated, and oversight mechanisms must be put in place to ensure enforcement is conducted effectively and in a fair, humane manner consistent with the law. The excessive use of immigration detention – which has surpassed 50,000 detained on any given day and is increasingly applied to families and children – is unjustified and an unnecessary waste of American taxpayer dollars.

Candidates' Positions

The use of detention continues to rise at dramatic rates. Twenty-five years ago, about 5,000 people were detained each day for immigration purposes. President Trump has increased the use of detention and, in 2019, the daily detention rate rose to over 50,000. The skyrocketing trend in detention will not yield until commitments are made to limit its use, funding is restricted, and the reliance on private contractors is ended. The following candidates have specifically called for reducing immigration detention or restricting funding for detention: Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Steve Bullock, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Joe Sestak, Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, and Marianne Williamson. The remaining candidates have not stated a position on reducing detention.

Candidates Who Have Pledged to Reduce Immigration Detention:

Joe Biden (D)

Joe BidenThe Biden campaign website says he will end “prolonged detention.” The site also states that “proven alternatives to detention and non-profit case management programs, which support migrants as they navigate their legal obligations, are the best way to ensure that they attend all required immigration appointments.”

The 2020 Democratic Party platform says: "We believe detention should be a last resort, not the default." This indicates support for reduced detention, but the Biden campaign has not yet pledged to reduce the numbers of people who are held in immigration detention, a figure which skyrocketed under both the Obama-Biden and Trump administrations. As a senator, Kamala Harris introduced the 2019 Detention Oversight Not Expansion Act, S. 2221, which would restrict the construction and expansion of detention facilities and restrict detention funding. AILA urges the Biden/Harris campaign to commit to lowering detention numbers as well as funding for immigration detention.

View Other Candidates' Positions

Cory Booker (D)

In response to the AILA Survey, Sen. Booker indicated that he supports the reduction of immigration detention, including the reduction in U.S. taxpayer funding of immigration detention. In addition, Sen. Booker’s campaign website states that he will “shut down inhumane facilities and require all facilities to meet the highest standards” by directing DHS to meet “the civil detention standards of the American Bar Association's Civil Immigration Detention Standards” for adults and those standards of the American Academy of Pediatrics for facilities with children.

Under his plan, “facilities would be required to develop plans and meet deadlines for compliance with these requirements or face closure, with current residents transferred to facilities that meet those requirements.” Sen. Booker will “virtually eliminate our nation’s reliance on immigration incarceration, including ending the use of for-profit detention facilities.” He proposes adopting “evidence-based non-profit alternatives to detention and ensuring that detention is used as a last resort” to meet his goal “to virtually eliminate immigration detention, with limited exceptions if there is a risk to public safety or flight risk.” – Campaign website

Steve Bullock (D)

Gov. Bullock’s campaign website states that he does not support “mass detention” of immigrants. At a campaign event he responded to a question from the audience that he would like to reduce immigration detention by 75 percent.

Pete Buttigieg (D)

In response to AILA’s Survey, Mayor Buttigieg indicated he supports the reduction of immigration detention, including a reduction in U.S. taxpayer funding of immigration detention. In addition, a July 2019 Newsweek article reported that Mayor Buttigieg has spoken out against current immigration detention practices and conditions. In response to an Amnesty International survey, Mr. Buttigieg stated that he would seek “to reduce the number immigrants at the border we are holding in detention" and "reinstate and expand case management programs" which provide oversight outside of detention.”

Julián Castro (D)

In his response to the AILA Survey, Mr. Castro stated:

I support a humane way of treating people who come to this country. My People First Immigration Plan will eliminate the for-profit immigration detention and prison industry, effectively end the use of detention in conducting immigration enforcement, except in serious cases the detainment of more than 55,000 on any given day, especially children and families. This policy is unfair and unjust.

Mr. Castro would “effectively end the use of detention in conducting immigration enforcement, except in serious cases” and instead “utilize cost-effective and more humane alternatives to detention, which draw on the successes of prior efforts like the Family Case Management Program.” He will “eliminate the for-profit immigration detention and prison industry, which monetizes the detention of migrants and children.”Campaign website

Read More

Kamala Harris (D)

Sen. Harris has pledged to close private immigrant detention centers and supports the use of more humane and cost-effective alternatives to detention. In 2019, she introduced the Detention Oversight Not Expansion (DONE) Act, S. 2221, which would restrict the construction and expansion of detention facilities and place restrictions on funding for detention.

Amy Klobuchar (D)

On her campaign website, Sen. Klobuchar says that she will: “End the for-profit detention of asylum seekers and reduce the size of the immigration detention system, limit ICE’s detention budget and expand alternatives to detention and the successful Family Case Management Program.”

In July 2019, she called for the closure of the Homestead detention facility in Florida after reports of inhumane conditions and treatment at the facility.

Beto O’Rourke (D)

Mr. O’Rourke will “issue an executive order to require detention only for those with criminal backgrounds representing a danger to our communities and eliminate all funding for private, for-profit prison operators whose incentive is profit, not security.” – Campaign website

Tim Ryan (D)

In response to AILA’s Survey, Rep. Ryan indicated he supports the reduction of immigration detention, including a reduction in U.S. taxpayer funding of immigration detention. However, in 2007, Rep. Ryan cosponsored H.R. 4088 (the SAVE Act), which would have added 8,000 more detention beds and required the construction or retention of a 500-bed family detention facility. More recently, Rep. Ryan has cosponsored bills (H.R. 15 in 2013 and H.R. 6135 in 2018) which include reforms to the detention system.

Bernie Sanders (D)

In response to AILA’s Survey, Sen. Sanders indicated that he supports the reduction of immigration detention, including a reduction in U.S. taxpayer funding of immigration detention. He further responded by stating:

Yes. Bernie will order an immediate moratorium on private immigration detention centers and immediately begin the process of closing them. He will order a review of the standards for facilities that house children and immediately connect children to sponsors and supports. Bernie will ensure all children who were separated from their families by the United States government are reunited swiftly, including those who have been separated through unjust deportation.

He will authorize and expand the use of community-based alternatives to detention that connect immigrants to health care services, legal counsel, and work opportunities. Bernie will end detention for families, children, and non-violent immigrants.

On his campaign website, Sen. Sanders proposes “to dismantle cruel and inhumane deportation programs and detention centers.” Additionally, a July 2019 press release stated that he would “end detention of families, children and anyone who doesn't pose a danger; eliminate private detention facilities; and protect asylum seekers as the law requires.” Senate website

Read More

Joe Sestak (D)

In response to the AILA Survey, Mr. Sestak stated that he supports the reduction of immigration detention, including a reduction in U.S. taxpayer funding of immigration detention. However, in 2007, Rep. Sestak cosponsored H.R. 4088 (the SAVE Act), which would have added 8,000 more detention beds and required the construction or retention of a 500-bed family detention facility. In 2008, Mr. Sestak supported detention reform legislation H.R. 5950 (Detainee Basic Medical Care Act), and in 2010, he supported H.R. 1215 (Immigration Oversight & Fairness Act).

Tom Steyer (D)

On his campaign website, Mr. Steyer says he will “end family separation and incarceration, immediately respect the Flores Agreement that sets strict restrictions on the detention of minors, end the shackling of pregnant women, and work to ensure a fair and speedy process for immigrants and refugees arriving at the border.” Furthermore, he holds that “there should be no profit motive in the incarceration or deportation of any person and will abolish private prisons and detention centers.”

Elizabeth Warren (D)

In response to the AILA Survey, Sen. Warren wrote:

My immigration plan calls to significantly reduce immigration detention. A Warren administration will end unnecessary detention by issuing guidance limiting its use only to those situations where it is actually necessary because an individual poses a flight or safety risk. I will put additional layers of protection in place for certain groups, including asylum seekers, families and pregnant women, and LGBTQ+ people who are more vulnerable in a general detention facility. I’ll enforce strict standards for remaining detention facilities, including for medical care and to end the use of solitary confinement. I will also end ICE contracts with private detention providers and push for legislation to permanently ban for-profit detention.

Community-based alternatives to detention are safer, save money, and can be more effective at ensuring compliance. I’ll significantly expand successful programs, which include case management, referrals to legal and social services, and periodic check-ins and surveillance. These programs provide a measure of dignity for those in the system, and their expanded use would save over a billion dollars each year in unnecessary detention costs.

Read More

Marianne Williamson (D)

Ms. Williamson would “reduce the record number of detainees currently under extended DHS and ICE control. We will work to close private detention centers and family detention centers.”Campaign website


Candidates Who Support Increased Immigration Detention:

Donald Trump (R)

Donald TrumpUnder the Trump Administration, immigration detention has increased from an average of 34,000 people detained per day at the beginning of his first term to 55,000 in August 2019. His policy initiatives and executive orders have further contributed to massive increases in the detention of immigrants.


Candidates with No Position on Reducing the Use of Detention:

The following candidates have not taken a position on the issue of reducing immigration detention: Republicans Mark Sanford, Joe Walsh, and Bill Weld, and Democrats Michael Bennet, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Wayne Messam, Tim Ryan, Joe Sestak, and Andrew Yang.

View Candidate Positions

Roque De La Fuente (R)

Mr. De La Fuente has not taken a position on immigration detention.

Mark Sanford (R)

Mr. Sanford has not taken a position on immigration detention.

Joe Walsh (R)

Mr. Walsh has not taken a position on immigration detention.

Bill Weld (R)

Mr. Weld has not taken a position on immigration detention.

Michael Bennet (D)

Sen. Bennet has not called for reducing immigration detention but has supported reforms to immigration detention: in 2019, he cosponsored S. 2113, the Stop Cruelty to Migrant Children Act of 2019; in 2018, he cosponsored S. 3036 (the Keep Families Together Act); in 2017, he cosponsored S. 668 (to rescind Executive Order 13767), S. 415 (to rescind Executive Order 13768), and S. 3227, the REUNITE Act.

Michael Bloomberg (D)

Mr. Bloomberg has not taken a position on immigration detention. In a 2017 op-ed for his media company, he observed that “the surge in asylum cases has fed a backlog in the court system, and without adequate detention facilities, many asylum seekers are released until their hearings can be held – which can take years.”

John Delaney (D)

While Rep. Delaney has not called for reducing immigration detention, he has sponsored legislation reforming the detention system: In 2013, he cosponsored H.R. 15 (the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, & Immigration Modernization Act), as well as H.R. 2491 in 2017 (the Global Respect Act) and H.R. 6135 in 2018 (the Keep Families Together Act.)

Tulsi Gabbard (D)

Rep. Gabbard has not taken a position on reducing detention. She has cosponsored other reforms to detention system: In 2013, H.R. 15 (the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, & Immigration Modernization Act; in 2017, H.R. 3227 (the Justice is Not for Sale Act); in 2018, H.R. 6135 (the Keep Families Together Act.)

Wayne Messam (D)

Mr. Messam has not taken a position on immigration detention.

Deval Patrick (D)

Mr. Patrick has not taken a position on immigration detention.

Andrew Yang (D)

Mr. Yang has not taken a position on immigration detention.


Supports Increased Detention No Position on Reducing Detention Supports Reduced Immigration Detention
Donald Trump

Donald Trump (R)

Roque De La Fuente

Roque De La Fuente (R)

Mark Sanford

Mark Sanford (R)

Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh (R)

William Weld

William Weld (R)

Michael Bennet

Michael Bennet (D)

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg (D)

John Delaney

John Delaney (D)

Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard (D)

Wayne Messam

Wayne Messam (D)

Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick (D)

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang (D)

Joe Biden

Joe Biden (D)

Cory Booker

Cory Booker (D)

Steve Bullock

Steve Bullock (D)

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg (D)

Julián Castro

Julián Castro (D)

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris (D)

Amy Klobuchar

Amy Klobuchar (D)

Beto O'Rourke

Beto O'Rourke (D)

Tim Ryan

Tim Ryan (D)

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders (D)

Joe Sestak

Joe Sestak (D)

Tom Steyer

Tom Steyer (D)

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren (D)

Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson (D)


Cite as AILA Doc. No. 20082706.