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Where Do the Candidates Stand on Legal Immigration?


We asked the 2020 presidential candidates where they stood on legal immigration:

  1. How do you propose to improve America’s legal immigration system to ensure it meets the needs of American families, communities, and businesses?

Here's where the candidates stand:

Restricts Legal Immigration No Position on Legal Immigration Supports Piecemeal Reforms to Legal Immigration Offers a Complete Plan That Provides Adequate Visas to Meet the Country’s Needs
Mark Sanford

Mark Sanford (R)

Donald Trump

Donald Trump (R)

Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh (R)

Wayne Messam

Wayne Messam (D)

Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick (D)

Marianne Williamson

Marianne Williamson (D)

Roque De La Fuente

Roque De La Fuente (R)

William Weld

William Weld (R)

Michael Bloomberg

Michael Bloomberg (D)

Steve Bullock

Steve Bullock (D)

Kamala Harris

Kamala Harris (D)

Tom Steyer

Tom Steyer (D)

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang (D)

Michael Bennet

Michael Bennet (D)

Joe Biden

Joe Biden (D)

Cory Booker

Cory Booker (D)

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg (D)

Julián Castro

Julián Castro (D)

John Delaney

John Delaney (D)

Tulsi Gabbard

Tulsi Gabbard (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)

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren (D)


AILA's Position:

The U.S. legal immigration system serves the national interest by reuniting American families, protecting vulnerable individuals, revitalizing communities, and providing U.S. employers with the workers they need to remain globally competitive. Despite the vital role immigration plays in the country’s prosperity, more than a quarter of a century has passed without Congress updating the number of green cards (immigrant visas) available each year. Families hoping to reunify with close relatives and employers needing workers must wait years for an immigrant visa to become available. Congress and the President should enact legislation reforming the legal immigration system to ensure that adequate numbers of visas are provided to those individuals who want to become lawful permanent residents of the United States, as well as those who want to live work, work, and study here temporarily. Congress should not impose arbitrary limits on visas or require that increases of visas in one category be offset with decreases in another category. Reforms to the legal immigration system should address both temporary and permanent visa categories.

Candidates' Positions:

The following candidates have set forth comprehensive plans to reform the legal immigration system to ensure there are adequate numbers of employment-based and family-based visas to meet the needs of American families, businesses, and communities: Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, John Delaney, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Joe Sestak, and Elizabeth Warren. The following candidates have proposed reforms to certain aspects of the legal immigration system but have not presented a full plan: Roque De La Fuente, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Weld, Steve Bullock, Kamala Harris, Tom Steyer, and Andrew Yang. The following candidates have no stated position on reforming the legal immigration system: Joe Walsh, Wayne Messam, Deval Patrick, and Marianne Williamson. President Trump and Mark Sanford are calling for restrictions on legal immigration.

Candidates with a Comprehensive Plan for Legal Immigration:

Candidates in this category support a comprehensive plan for reforming the legal immigration system to ensure there are adequate family-based, employment-based and humanitarian visas to meet the needs of the country.

Michael Bennet (D)

Sen. Bennet was a leading co-sponsor of the 2013 Senate immigration reform bill, S.744, which made significant modifications to the family-based and employment-based immigration systems and, if passed, would have overhauled legal immigration levels and reduced the backlogs for applicants in many immigrant categories. In addition, S.744 created a new merit-based point system that offered immigrant visas based on an assessment of applicants’ educational credentials, work experience, and other qualifications.

Joe Biden (D)

According to Mr. Biden’s campaign website, he “will work with Congress to increase the number of visas awarded for permanent, employment-based immigration—and promote mechanisms to temporarily reduce the number of visas during times of high U.S. unemployment.” He will also “support a program to allow any county or municipal executive of a large or midsize county or city to petition for additional immigrant visas to support the region’s economic development strategy, provided employers in those regions certify there are available jobs, and that there are no workers to fill them.” In addition, Mr. Biden “will support expanding the number of high-skilled visas and eliminating the limits on employment-based visas by country, which create unacceptably long backlogs.” He also "will support family-based immigration by preserving family unification as a foundation of our immigration system; by allowing any approved applicant to receive a temporary non-immigrant visa until the permanent visa is processed; and by supporting legislation that treats the spouse and children of green card holders as the immediate relatives they are, exempting them from caps, and allowing parents to bring their minor children with them at the time they immigrate."

During his years in the Senate, Mr. Biden voted in favor of several immigration reform bills, including the 2006 Comprehensive Immigration Reform bill, S.2611, and the 2007 McCain-Kennedy bill, S.1639. He was a cosponsor of the 2007 AgJobs Act.

Cory Booker (D)

In 2019, Sen. Booker stated: “But we need comprehensive immigration reform. The kind of thing that's going on is a direct abuse to our values. I will change that as your president, affirm our values, and create an immigration system that keeps us safe and works in accordance to our values, as well.” CNN Townhall, March 27, 2019. In his response to the AILA Survey, Sen. Booker stated:

As president, I will make sure that our immigration system treats immigrants with dignity because when people cross borders, they bring their human rights with them. I will fight for a system that recognizes that immigrants make our country stronger and that we need each other to move our country forward. I will fight for the passage of legislation in Congress that reforms our immigration system and provides earned citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants living and working with us as our family members, colleagues, neighbors, and friends.

Pete Buttigieg (D)

In response to the AILA Survey, Mayor Buttigieg states:

I support an increase in legal immigration. Many communities depend on immigration for their economy and will thrive with increased immigration. One way I am proposing to meet the needs of American communities is through a new place-based Community Renewal Visa as described in the “Our Commitment to America’s Heartland” plan that I proposed to drive economic growth in rural communities. Additionally, we need to increase USCIS personnel and resources to address the backlog of visa applications. We also need to create a system that is more flexible to the changing needs of our businesses and communities. That is why I support creating a commission that will update our visa numbers every year in order to allow the flexibility we clearly need in our changing economy.

In addition, Mr. Buttigieg has stated: “But we've got a crisis on our hands. Americans want comprehensive immigration reform. We've been talking about the same framework for my entire adult lifetime: protections for DREAMers; making sure that we have a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented; cleaning up lawful immigration. We know what to do. The problem is we haven't had the will to get it done in Washington.” Democratic debate, July 30, 2019. At an April 22, 2019, townhall hosted by CNN, Mayor Buttigieg stated: “We know the outlines of a comprehensive immigration reform—a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people in this country; a level of protection for DREAMers; a set of reforms to clear up the bureaucracy and the backlogs in the lawful immigration system, which is how my father became a U.S. citizen; and reasonable measures on border security.”

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Julián Castro (D)

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

I believe the United States should completely reform the U.S. visa-based immigration system to reunite families, protect vulnerable individuals, respect asylum claims, and advance our nation’s global economic competitiveness. Our visa-based immigration system is a reflection of our values and future as a nation. I support expanding legal immigration, not reducing it.

Specifically, we must pass the Reuniting Families Act to permanently expand residency for close family members of permanent residents, claim unused green cards, extend protections for spouses of guestworkers, and end all country caps on green cards that lead to citizens of certain countries waiting decades or over a century. I also support stronger labor protections for guestworkers and the transformation of the agricultural guest worker program into one that leads to permanent residency in the United States.

Mr. Castro will “revamp the visa system and strengthen family reunification through the Reuniting Families Act, reducing the number of people who are waiting to reunite with their families but are stuck in the bureaucratic backlog.” He will “eliminate the backlog of 4.4 million people waiting for visas to reunite with their families” and “allow spouses and minor children of permanent residents to immediately reunite with their families in the United States.” He will also “eliminate per-country limits for all visas, ending the decades-long wait time for citizens of certain countries to immigrate to the United States.” Campaign website

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John Delaney (D)

Rep. Delaney was a cosponsor of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, H.R. 15, the Border Security Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. Campaign website. In 2012, Rep. Delaney specifically called for additional H-1B visas. On the Issues.

Tulsi Gabbard (D)

Rep. Gabbard was a cosponsor of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, H.R. 15, the Border Security Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. In 2016, she cosponsored the Reuniting Families Act, H.R. 4798, which proposed substantial reforms to the family-based immigration system and recaptured unused visas in the employment-based and family-based visa categories. Rep. Gabbard is a co-sponsor of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act. Her campaign website states the bill “would remove the existing per-country cap on employment-based green cards and ensure all immigrants are treated equally regardless of their country of origin.” Campaign website

Amy Klobuchar (D)

Sen. Klobuchar has not presented a plan for legal immigration reform, but in 2013 she voted in favor of the Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill, S.744.

Beto O’Rourke (D)

Mr. O’Rourke “will reunite families and ensure they have a chance to contribute more to our economy and our communities—and pursue the American Dream. He will put workers and employers on a level playing field to, together, tap into the opportunity immigration presents for our economic growth and shared prosperity. […] In his first hundred days, Beto will put the full weight of the presidency behind passing legislation that […] strengthens our families, communities, and economy by prioritizing family unity—a hallmark of our best traditions—through provisions that reunite immigrant families separated by lengthy visa backlogs” and “revise preference categories and caps to prioritize family unity.”

Mr. O’Rourke will “increase the visa caps so that we match our economic opportunities and needs—for work, education, investment, and innovation—to the number of people we allow into this country. This also means legislation that will: ensure that industries that depend on immigrant labor have access to a program that allows workers to legally come here and legally return to their home country with appropriate labor and mobility protections; address the green-card backlog and provide opportunities for those awaiting resolution to work and contribute, while immediately recapturing the over 300,000 green cards that have gone unused due to bureaucratic delays to support our high-growth industries of the future; promote STEM education by granting foreign-born students more flexibility to stay in the U.S. and gain employment after graduating; and allow foreign-born entrepreneurs and U.S. patent holders the chance to stay in the United States to grow their business, create jobs, and raise families that will go on to enrich our country.” – Campaign website

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Tim Ryan (D)

In his response to the AILA Survey, Rep. Ryan states:

I believe America’s immigration system should reflect our core values of freedom, opportunity, diversity, and safety. I would, within the first 100 days of taking office, send Congress immigration reform legislation. My bill would focus on family reunification, job creation by providing the tools American employers need to attract and retain foreign talent, a temporary worker program tied to our economic needs, and a robust asylum and refugee program. My legislation would include a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in our country.

Rep. Ryan was a cosponsor of the 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill, H.R. 15, the Border Security Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act. He is also the sponsor of a 2019 bill that would create a commission to study immigration reform and border security. In addition, Rep. Ryan is a sponsor of the Fairness for High-Skilled Immigrants Act of 2019, H.R. 1044, and previous versions of the bill which would eliminate the per-country cap on employment-based immigrant visas and increase the per-country cap on family-based visas.

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Bernie Sanders (D)

Sen. Sanders has stated that he supports comprehensive immigration reform, but has not offered a plan. In 2013, he voted in favor of the Senate comprehensive immigration reform bill, S.744. In his response to the AILA Survey, Sen. Sanders states:

Bernie believes that we are long overdue for humane immigration reform in this country. He supports a family-based immigration system grounded in civil and human rights. He opposes letting corporate America pick and choose who they want to come into our country. Bernie believes we must stand up for our values and accept refugees, asylum-seekers, and families who come to the United States in search of the American Dream.

When he is in the White House, Bernie will create a swift and fair roadmap to citizenship, ensure and expand access to asylum for persecuted immigrants, dismantle Trump’s deportation machine and detention centers, put an end to family separation once and for all, decriminalize and demilitarize our border, establish a humane review process for those who are currently arriving at the border under civil proceedings, end the exploitation of immigrant workers and ensure that they are protected by law, modernize the visa system, rewrite bad trade agreements, and ensure access to justice for all immigrants.

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Joe Sestak (D)

In his response to the AILA Survey, Mr. Sestak states:

I believe immigration is critically important to our nation. Without immigrants, we would be in a population death-spiral like Japan. I have personally witnessed as many blighted communities in my native Pennsylvania have been reinvigorated by new immigrant communities and the businesses that grow out of them. I also realize that we have a worker shortage in many American industries, including vital industries like agriculture, food processing, and at-home healthcare.

Many of these jobs are filled by immigrants, and I hear from small business owners all the time that we need to offer more immigrant visas. I would increase guest worker visas in particular, to create more legal pathways for foreign workers to come to America to work for a period of time and then return home—recognizing that many immigrants would not like to permanently leave home, but do so for lack of a better option. I would increase the numbers of highly skilled immigrants allowed into the country, especially in STEM fields, and ensure that anyone who comes to this country and successfully completes their higher education here can find an opportunity to stay and contribute to our economy and our society. Finally, I support all of this in the context of comprehensive immigration reform legislation that includes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants already in this country. We need to streamline and make more effective our entire immigration system, everything from the visa application reviews to timely asylum procedures and decisions.

Mr. Sestak’s website says: “While I believe our system must always endeavor to preserve individual family units, we should also take reasonable steps to bring in more skilled workers to fill the jobs our economy desperately needs filled.” – Campaign website

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Tom Steyer

On his campaign website, Mr. Steyer says that he “would defend and protect our family-based immigration system in any future immigration reform.” He also “supports reinvigorating our visa system — including streamlining the H-1B visa application process, increasing the number of H-1 visas available to no less than Obama-era levels, and facilitating pathways to permanent residency — to attract and retain talented individuals from around the world.”

Elizabeth Warren (D)

Sen. Warren states in her response to the AILA Survey:

We need to rebuild our immigration system from top-to-bottom. That starts with opposing President Trump’s bigoted policies, including his illegal ban on travelers from Muslim-majority countries. But that’s not enough: we need expanded legal immigration that will grow our economy, reunite families, and meet our labor market demands.

Our immigration system should reflect our values, which means making it easier for relatives of citizens and green-card holders to come to the United States. As many as 4 million immigrants who are otherwise eligible to come to the United States legally are prohibited because of by-country visa caps. My plan includes reducing the family reunification backlog by redistributing unused visas, reuniting more families with their loved ones. I’ll also urge Congress to repeal laws that make family reunification more difficult to achieve.

America should welcome more legal immigration—done in the right way and consistent with our values. We should put American workers first by ensuring that workers already here get the first shot to fill available positions. We should empower workers, not employers, by coupling any expansion of legal immigration with real accountability on employers who break the rules, exploit workers, or don’t adhere to basic labor standards. And we should be transparent and data-driven in our immigration policies, using the best available information to identify true needs in the labor force and to address those needs in a way that incorporates the input of both workers and companies.

Finally, I’ll establish an Office of New Americans dedicated to supporting new immigrants as they transition into our society and economy, and task that office to draft a national strategy for integration. We should provide English, civics, and employment-focused classes and training for immigrants who want to enroll, and work with faith groups and other community organizations to provide support services for refugees and asylees, providing the tools to make it easier for newcomers to integrate into their communities.

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Candidates Supporting Piecemeal Reforms to Legal Immigration:

Candidates in this category propose to focus on a specific area of reform but have not stated that they support a complete reform plan.

Roque De La Fuente (R)

Mr. De La Fuente has tweeted that he supports expanding work visas.

Bill Weld (R)

Mr. Weld has called for the federal government to issue more H-1B visas to help ensure the U.S. workforce stays globally competitive. – PBS Newshour

Michael Bloomberg (D)

While he was the mayor of New York City in 2011, Mr. Bloomberg proposed a comprehensive immigration reform plan that mostly focused on economic growth. It expanded skilled migration, allowed foreign graduates of American schools with technical degrees to obtain green cards after graduation, reformed foreign investment for foreign entrepreneurs to start businesses more easily, and proposed eliminating the visa cap while offered start-up capital and tax-breaks for foreign entrepreneurs. Since then, he has notably supported improvements to H-1B visas. As of early December 2019, Mr. Bloomberg had not yet proposed reforms to the family-based immigration system.

Steve Bullock (D)

Gov. Bullock will “address access to seasonal foreign workers in a more efficient manner that doesn’t take jobs away from American workers or depress wages, but allows employers to hire seasonal staff efficiently.” – Campaign website

Kamala Harris (D)

Sen. Harris’s campaign website states that she supports immigration reform and that for her that means “making America a place that welcomes immigrants searching for a better life. It’s why she’ll reverse President Trump’s Muslim Ban on Day One and fix the family visa backlog.”

Andrew Yang (D)

Mr. Yang supports “increasing our guest worker program” and believes that “we should greatly expand our H-1B and F-1 visa programs to allow significantly more highly skilled individuals and top-of-their-class students to study and work here. Additionally, any highly rated worker or graduating student who receives a graduate degree here should be given a green card to remain in this country as a permanent resident.” Campaign website


Candidates Who Would Restrict Legal Immigration:

Mark Sanford (R)

In 2018, Mr. Sanford cosponsored the Secure America’s Future Act, which proposed restrictions to legal immigration by cutting family-based immigration categories and eliminating the diversity visa program. The bill also included border security and interior enforcement provisions.

President Trump (R)

President Trump supported the RAISE Act, sponsored by Senators Cotton (R-AR) and Purdue (R-GA) that would dramatically reduce family-based immigration, eliminate the Diversity Visa Lottery, and restrict refugee admissions. The policy changes implemented by the Trump Administration have reduced the functioning of the legal immigration system and made it more difficult for people to apply for and complete the legal immigration process. His response to the AILA Survey includes the following statement on the legal immigration system:

President Trump recognizes the great contributions immigrants have made to American society, which is why he supports safe and lawful immigration to the United States.