Biden vs Bernie: What Are Their Stances On Immigration?

Learn about the key differences between Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden's stances on immigration policy and their records on the issue.
Bernie Sanders (Michael Vadon/Creative Commons), Joe Biden (Kuhlmann/MSC/Creative Commons)

Bernie Sanders (Michael Vadon/Creative Commons), Joe Biden (Kuhlmann/MSC/Creative Commons)

Bernie Sanders’ Immigration Plan

Presidential hopeful Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), vying for the Democratic Party nomination, offers his immigration plan, which he calls “A Welcoming and Safe America for All.” Sanders lays out his “Key Points” for his proposed policy on his website:

  • Institute a moratorium on deportations until a thorough audit of past practices and policies is complete.
  • Reinstate and expand DACA and develop a humane policy for those seeking asylum.
  • Completely reshape and reform our immigration enforcement system, including breaking up ICE and CBP and redistributing their functions to their proper authorities.
  • Dismantle cruel and inhumane deportation programs and detention centers and reunite families who have been separated.
  • Live up to our ideals as a nation and welcome refugees and those seeking asylum, including those displaced by climate change.

Approach To Immigration

Sanders takes a humanitarian approach to immigration, rather than the hardline approach used by the Trump Administration, which focuses on criminalization. He would demilitarize the border, treat unauthorized crossings as a civil matter and create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Sanders seeks to reverse President Trump’s policies, and to hold a Latin American summit to examine the root causes of migration.


On “Day One,” Sanders says he will immediately reverse all of Trump’s immigration actions. He wants to stop all deportations until after an analysis of past practices, audit and close detention centers, ensure reunification and end for-profit detention. He would stop border wall construction. Sanders also makes arranging a summit with Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico a Day One priority.

A spokesperson for Sanders clarified that deportations would continue for violent criminals, but this modification does not appear in his plan.

Undoing Trump’s Policies

Sanders seeks to overturn the Muslim Travel Ban, and work with Congress to prohibit the future use of similar criteria to deny entry by passing the NO BAN Act (National Origin-Based Antidiscrimination for Nonimmigrants Act). He wants to end the Remain in Mexico policy instituted by Trump which requires asylum-seekers from Central America to wait in Mexico for their hearings. He would end the metering of asylees, which is the practice of limiting how many people can request asylum each day.

He would restore the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) designations and extend them. Ending Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy at the border, Sanders would focus on civil, rather than criminal, proceedings, and would seek to reunify families. He would also restore funding to and drop litigation against sanctuary cities. Rescinding the “public charge” rule, Sanders would once again allow asylum on the basis of domestic violence, including relating to orientation or gender, and gang violence.


Sanders seeks to restore both Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) and Deferred Action for Parents of Americans (DAPA), and expand them. DAPA was halted by a federal court, a ruling that remained in place by default, as the case ended in a tie at the Supreme Court. the Trump Administration officially rescinded the program in 2017. Sanders also seeks to use advance parole, or a specific travel authorization for non-nationals who have traveled abroad, to reunite families.

From Sanders:
“Bernie will use every executive tool available to remove barriers to legal permanent residence and naturalization for as many as possible, even if he has to sign every form by hand.”

Documented And Undocumented Immigrants

Sanders seeks to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, allowing for permanent legal status and citizenship within five years. He wants to provide expedited citizenship for undocumented youth, without a reduction in family-based visas.

Ending for-profit detention, Sanders would require detention centers to comply with the American Bar Association’s Civil Immigration Detention Standards. Immigrants harmed in custody would have a cause of action; facilities would subject to routine inspections, and any deaths in custody would require investigations and immediate notifications.

Sanders would emphasize community-based alternatives to detention, with a presumption of release, particularly for vulnerable people, including members of the LGBTQ+ community, pregnant individuals, LGBTQ+, people with disabilities, asylum seekers and caregivers. He wants to establish a $14 billion grant for public defenders, establish a right to counsel, double the funding for adjudications and ensure translators.

Sanders says he will pass the Protecting Our Workers from Exploitation and Retaliation (POWER) Act, which allows undocumented immigrants who report labor or workplace violations to be protected by a U-visa.

Sanders seeks to streamline the process for naturalization, addressing backlogs and eliminating any discrimination faced by LGBTQ+ individuals in the immigration process. He would also utilize a National Office of Disability Coordination to better serve people with disabilities.

The Border

Sanders wants to de-militarize the border and cease construction on Trump’s border wall, seeking more cost-effective and innovative ways to prevent the importation of drugs and to end human trafficking. Sanders seeks a return to due process at the border with a focus on fairness. Sanders seeks to treat unauthorized border crossings as civil, rather than criminal, matters.


Sanders seeks to restructure the Department of Homeland Security, created by an act of Congress in 2002. Breaking up ICE (Immigration and Customs) and CBP (Customs and Border Protection), Sanders wants to return the powers of “Deportation, enforcement, border and investigatory authority,” to the Department of Justice, while the Treasury Department would go back to customs enforcement, which was moved from it in 2003. The State Department would handle naturalization and citizenship.

Also on Sander’s list is repealing 8 U.S. Code Section 1325, so a border crossing would be comparable to overstaying a visa, and repealing the 1996 immigration laws, which would, according to the Sanders campaign site:

  • Repeal three- and ten-year bars.
  • End permanent deportation.
  • End expedited removal.
  • End mandatory detention.
  • Restore case by case discretion for immigration judges.
  • Restore the definition of “aggravated felony” to its initial intent, violent crimes and serious drug trafficking.
  • End the “Constitution-free zone” within 100 miles of the border.

Immigration And The States

All of the programs that utilize local law enforcement for immigration enforcement would end under Sanders. Sanders says he will end the Priority Enforcement Program (the Trump Administration ended the program in 2017). He says would end the Secure Communities program (the Obama Adminstration ended the program in 2014; the Trump Adminstration restarted it in 2017), which sends FBI fingerprints to DHS, and the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) which deports incarcerated people who are undocumented.

He would also end the 287(g) program, which provides for the collaboration of state and local law enforcement with federal immigration authorities. The name 287(g) refers to its section of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA), and would require either overturning by the courts or a repeal by Congress.


Sanders would welcome people seeking asylum and refugees, and move toward more sympathetic treatment. He would end the Trump policies making it more difficult to seek asylum, including “Remain in Mexico”, and return to permitting asylum claims based on domestic violence, LBGTQ+ designation or gang activity. He would also end the use of the “iceboxes,” cold holding facilities used by CBP to hold asylees.

Says Sanders:
“We will exercise due process at the border and establish a humane and fair review process for asylum claims.”

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What’s Bernie Sanders’ record on immigration?

While Bernie Sanders is credited with supporting a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, in 2007, he voted against the Comprehensive Immigration Reform that provided such a means. Saying the bill would harm U.S. workers by “driving down wages,” he called the border “porous.”

Consistently opposing immigration legislation that he claimed would help guest workers at the expense of Americans, he long championed the idea that more immigration harms American workers, even as recently as 2015. Now, however, he subscribes to the idea that all workers face similar issues.

Sanders voted for an amendment in 2006 protecting the Minutemen, a vigilante militia group of private citizens who, in the 2000s, conducted armed “patrols” of the border, seeking to encourage a hardline shift in Republican immigration policies. In 2015, he called that legislation “a nuisance amendment.” It’s a contrast with a senator who defended the Obama Administration for creating DACA.

As recently as April 2019, Sanders said “If you open the borders, there's a lot of poverty in this world, and you're going to have people from all over the world. And I don't think that's something that we can do at this point. Can't do it.” How this view comports with his plan of halting all deportations and making unauthorized border crossings a civil matter is unclear.

Overall, Sanders’ stance toward immigration has softened over the years, with his views on workers’ rights expanding to include immigrants, documented and undocumented, as reflected in his proposed protection of undocumented whistle-blowers. He would also offer access to Medicare-for-all and College-for-all, a departure from early views that could be classed as protectionist.

Sanders on immigration:
“Bernie supports a family-based immigration system grounded in civil and human rights. 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. This is how America was built and it has made our country strong.”

Joe Biden’s Immigration Plan

Dubbed “The Biden Plan for Securing Our Values as a Nation of Immigrants,” Democratic presidential hopeful former Vice-President sums up his immigration plan as follows:

  • Take urgent action to undo Trump’s damage and reclaim America’s values
  • Modernize America’s immigration system
  • Welcome immigrants in our communities
  • Reassert America’s commitment to asylum-seekers and refugees
  • Tackle the root causes of irregular migration
  • Implement effective border screening

Approach To Immigration

Joe Biden emphasizes values in his immigration plan. Welcoming immigrants, reversing Trump’s actions, modernizing the immigration system, helping asylum-seekers, and implementing better border screening form the basis of his plan. Under Biden, the immigration system would be “fair and humane.”


Biden’s priorities, listed as “the first 100 days,” include immediately reversing Trump’s policies separating families at the border, and reunifying separated families. He would end Trump’s asylum restrictions and again offer protection to people fleeing domestic violence, LBGTQ individuals facing persecution, people fleeing gang violence and individuals facing other forms of persecution.

Greeting people seeking asylum with humanitarian resources and public-private initiatives, Biden would end the Trump policy of metering, end long-term detention and rely instead on a case management system. In those first 100 days, Biden would reverse Trump’s public charge rule, stop the construction on the wall, while focusing on improved infrastructure and screening at the border.

Biden would reinstitute DACA, and will “explore all legal options to protect their families from inhumane separation.” He would rescind Trump’s travel bans, review TPS decisions, and prevent returns to unsafe countries. A Biden Administration would review and reset enforcement priorities, emphasizing due process and removal of threats to public safety. Biden would increase training and demand independent oversight over ICE and CBP, emphasizing professional standards with a humane approach.

Biden would restore the naturalization process, which Trump made more difficult, would end Trump’s policy of targeting former military for deportation, and would seek to reunite deported military members with their families. He would shift focus to helping new immigrants integrate and thrive, and would seek a meeting of leaders from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Canada to discuss the root causes of migration.

Undoing Trump’s Policies

Biden plans to reverse Trump’s immigration policies in the first 100 days in office, ending the Muslim travel ban, reuniting families and ending separations, rescinding the “public charge” rule, refocusing enforcement and deportation on public threats, once again making naturalization accessible to Green Card holders, and reopening our country to people seeking asylum. Biden would shift the priorities of ICE and CBP toward humane action and end enforcement actions around schools, hospitals, work or houses of worship.


Biden seeks to fully restore DACA, a program created by the Obama-Biden Administration. While awaiting legislative action on a pathway to citizenship, Dreamers who came to the US as children, have followed the law, and have stayed in school or enlisted will not be deported. Biden would make Dreamers eligible for student loans and proposes access to community colleges. He acknowledges the contribution Dreamers make to the economy and to local municipalities who embrace them.

Documented And Undocumented Immigrants

Joe Biden plans to leverage his political capital as president to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Focusing on welcoming immigrants, Biden seeks to enhance diversity while providing a means for citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants. Viewing immigration as a means to bolster the economy and attract talent to the US, Biden also values the contributions of temporary workers and seeks to reform the visa system to accommodate them.

For agricultural workers, Biden envisions a system that will create legal status, ensuring fair wages and safety for farmworkers. His plan has room for both family- and employment-based immigration, and will preserve diversity.

A new visa category will allow local governments to petition to increase their immigrant populations through additional immigrant visas where there are jobs without sufficient workers. Biden acknowledges that protecting the wages and treatment of immigrant workers protects the wages and treatment of American workers, and will seek to prevent employers from taking advantage.

Biden would protect undocumented workers who report labor violations, would continue to expand the Obama-Biden Administration U-Visas program and work to ensure passage of the POWER Act. He would also increase access to visas for survivors of domestic violence.

Biden wants to establish programs to welcome and include immigrants in communities, with local government offices, neighborhood resource centers, easing relicensing, helping documented immigrants naturalize, and provide support so that immigrants can thrive. Biden also seeks to work to repeal punitive anti-immigrant state laws.

The Border

Biden rejects the idea of a border wall, calling it ineffective. He views the border as an opportunity for cooperation, commerce, and connection. Instead, he supports better technology targeting ports of entry and infrastructure. Collaboration is key for Biden; both that across US agencies, and with our neighbors, Canada and Mexico.


Modernization of the immigration system is the bedrock of Biden’s immigration policy, with the goal of a humane system that celebrates diversity. Biden points out that undocumented immigrants come from all parts of the world, and the 11 million people living in the US and contributing to it--$23.6 billion in taxes from 4.4 million people without social security numbers in 2015--deserve the security of legal status.

In addition to plans to integrate immigrants into communities, from his site, Biden’s immigration system, accomplished through legislation:

  • Creates a roadmap to citizenship for the nearly 11 million people who have been living in and strengthening our country for years.
  • Reforms the visa program for temporary workers in select industries.
  • Reforms the temporary visa system.
  • Provides a path to legalization for agricultural workers who have worked for years on
  • U.S. farms and continue to work in agriculture.
  • Rejects the false choice between employment-based and family-based immigration.
  • Preserves preferences for diversity in the current system.
  • Increases the number of visas offered for permanent, work-based immigration based on macroeconomic conditions.
  • Creates a new visa category to allow cities and counties to petition for higher levels of immigrants to support their growth.
  • Enforces the rules to protect American and foreign workers alike.
  • Expands protections for undocumented immigrants who report labor violations.
  • Increases visas for domestic violence survivors.

Immigration And The States

As president, Biden would reestablish the Task Force for New Americans, a program under the Obama Administration intended to ease the adjustment for new immigrants and refugees. In addition to creating opportunities for communities to petition to attract immigrants, Biden proposes, from his website:

  • Establishing Offices of Immigrant Affairs in city halls, or at the county and state levels, so there are local government officials focused on making policies inclusive;
  • Creating neighborhood resource centers or welcome centers to help all residents find jobs; access services and English-language learning opportunities; and navigate the school system, health care system, and other important facets of daily life;
  • Supporting entrepreneur incubators targeted toward immigrants and providing resources to help access business loans, mentoring, and capital;
  • Promoting statewide seals of biliteracy to recognize people who graduate from high school speaking multiple languages;
  • Driving campaigns to help lawful permanent residents naturalize;
  • Facilitating statewide efforts to lower the barriers to relicense professional degrees and certifications from other countries;
  • Increasing immigrant representation on community boards;
  • Ensuring that all public schools have sufficient English-language learning support to help all children reach their potential; and
  • Investing in programs to connect immigrant professionals to others in their field or to create cultural events and other programming to build social capital in immigrant communities.


A Biden Administration would return to welcoming refugees, and offers the following plan to address asylum, in addition to dealing with the root causes:

  • Surge asylum officers to efficiently review the cases of recent border crossers and keep cases with positive credible-fear findings with the Asylum Division
  • Restore asylum eligibility for domestic violence survivors.
  • Apply U.S. asylum laws to those fleeing political persecution.
  • Double the number of immigration judges, court staff, and interpreters.
  • End for-profit detention centers.
  • Increase the number of refugees we welcome into the country.

What’s Joe Biden’s record on immigration?

The Obama Administration faced criticism for its high number of deportations, about 5.3 million overall. Under Obama, deportations focused on undocumented individuals with criminal records with the Safe Communities Program though, in practicality, it led to the deportations of people with even minor infractions. Obama’s policies evolved in response to criticism in his second term, including reducing long-term detentions and providing support to ensure better compliance with the process. Biden’s policies appear to further the changes undertaken by the end of Obama’s second term.

While Biden initially seemed resistant to admitting the shortcomings of the early, first-term Obama deportations, he recently called them “a mistake.” Said Biden: “It wasn’t until 2012 that we began to get it right with the DACA program and trying very much in 2014 to expand that and moving in the right direction.”

As a senator, Biden voted for the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, which provided a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants; he, along with most Democrats also voted for the 2006 Secure Fence Act, which constructed fence along the Southern border. He now opposes building Trump’s wall as ineffective, and looks to more high-tech means of securing the border. Prior to his vice-presidency, in 2007, Biden stood opposed to “sanctuary cities;” they are not mentioned in his current plan.

Biden now on immigration:
“Immigration is essential to who we are as a nation, our core values, and our aspirations for our future. Under a Biden Administration, we will never turn our backs on who we are or that which makes us uniquely and proudly American. The United States deserves an immigration policy that reflects our highest values as a nation.”

A Side-By-Side Comparison Of Policies

Biden and Sanders would both reverse all of the Trump policies, including the “zero-tolerance” family separations, Muslim Ban, the metering of people seeking asylum at the border and restore protections for domestic violence, gang violence, and LGBTQ persecution. They would cease construction of the border wall, end for-profit detention, and move away from long-term detention. Both support a roadmap to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, protecting both documented and undocumented workers through the POWER Act, and both would restore DACA.

Here are some important issues where they differ.

Issues Biden Sanders
Deportation Plan does not call for halting all deportations Halts all deportations until an evaluation of the system
Actions Requiring Congressional Approval Pass comprehensive immigration reform modernizing the system Repeal 8 U.S. Code Section 1325, making a border crossing similar to overstaying a visa.

Repeal the 1996 immigration laws.

Repeal 287(g) program

ICE/CBP and Naturalization Calls for professional standards, training ,and oversight for ICE and CBP Break up ICE with powers of
“Deportation, enforcement, border and investigatory authority,” to the
Department of Justice (may require act of Congress)Customs enforcement moves to Treasury (May require act of Congress)Naturalization to State Department (May require act of Congress)
Border Does not call for making unauthorized crossings a civil matter Unauthorized crossings would be treated as civil matters
DAPA Seeks new solutions for the families of Dreamers through legislation and does not seek to resurrect DAPA, which was legally challenged under Obama Would reinstate DAPA
State and Local Law Enforcement Does not call for the end of programs utilizing cooperation between the federal government and local governments Calls for an end to all programs utilizing cooperation between the federal government and local governments
Welcome Programs Seeks to restore Task Force for New Americans to support new immigrants and help them integrate into communities Does not provide for such a program

The Rantt Rundown

Presidential candidates Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, vying for the Democratic Party’s nomination, each released comprehensive plans on immigration. While their plans concur on many issues, including DACA and Trump’s policies, they also have some key differences. The candidates have had long careers in politics, and their positions on immigration have evolved over time. Still, policy aside, both view immigration as a core value intrinsic to our American values.

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Rantt 101 // Bernie Sanders / Immigration / Joe Biden