Four days after its official launch, Kirsten Gillibrand brought her presidential campaign to Las Vegas for a policy discussion with local legal professionals who are on the frontline of the national debate on immigration.
The New York senator toured the UNLV Immigration Clinic and held a roundtable discussion with its director and law students. The clinic provides pro-bono legal representation for immigrants and refugees, including unaccompanied children. They spoke about problems with the immigration system as Gillibrand took notes and sought feedback on her proposed solutions.
Among the ideas the presidential hopeful expressed support for: appointing immigration judges for life, guaranteeing lawyers for every asylum seeker, defunding private detention centers, and dismantling Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) as it exists today.
That platform contrasts with political positions the senator took more than a decade ago while running for U.S. House and Senate seats in conservative upstate New York, when she was opposing “amnesty for illegal immigrants” and supporting closed borders in the name of national security.
Gillibrand has publicly called those previous positions “embarrassing” and said her position has evolved after hearing stories of families torn apart or living in fear of being torn apart.
She referenced some of those experiences Thursday, speaking about visiting detention centers in her home state, seeing “inhumane” prison-like conditions, and hearing stories about young people deported in the middle of the night, just hours after they turn 18 years old.
Gillibrand said as president she would do away with private detention centers.
The senator also took issue with the structure of immigration courts, arguing that because immigration judges are hired and overseen by the attorney general, they are incentivized to follow the political whims of the attorney general rather than rule impartially and fairly.
“They do what they’re told,” she said. “Judges should be trained and impartial.”
Gillibrand supports lifetime appointments for immigration judges.
Another issue with immigration court is that legal representation is not guaranteed, which Gillibrand argued means people are not receiving the due process they are entitled to. Current and former lawyers from the UNLV Immigration Clinic have been outspoken about this issue, sharing stories via social media about the unaccompanied children they have represented who would otherwise be facing a system alone.
Gillibrand, who succeeded Hillary Clinton in the Senate in 2009, has been an outspoken critic of the Trump Administration. Her first major speaking engagement after announcing her campaign was held outside a Trump hotel in New York City.
While some Democrats still shy away from the rallying cry “abolish ICE,” Gillibrand began calling for a dismantling and restructuring of the controversial department last year.
ICE is currently housed under the Department of Homeland Security. Gillibrand said the anti-terrorism arm of ICE should remain there and be fully funded, but the immigration element would be more appropriate elsewhere. She referenced a letter sent by 19 ICE agents calling to abolish their department because the politically fraught immigration enforcement and removal arm of the department was negatively impacting their ability to combat transnational terrorism.
Prior to 2003, immigration enforcement fell under the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS), an agency within the Department of Justice. INS was also once part of the Department of Labor.
“There are many places you could put it,” said Gillibrand. She called immigration a family, economic and humanitarian issue and criticized Trump for creating a “manufactured crisis” at the southern border.
The senator also expressed her support of Dreamers, saying she expects House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to put forth legislation this year and hopes it could achieve bipartisan support in the Senate.
“I am 100 percent committed to you having pathways to citizenship,” she said, addressing a first-year law student who identified himself as a Dreamer worried about the uncertainty of immigration law.
Minutes later, Gillibrand referenced the estimated 10 to 12 million undocumented immigrants believed to be in the country today.
“We need to create pathways for all of them,” said Gillibrand.
Hours after visiting the UNLV Immigration Clinic, Gillibrand hosted a meet-and-greet with local Democrats at Atomic Liquors in Downtown Las Vegas. The Associated Press reported she also had plans to meet with former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.