Has Bernie Sanders Evolved on Immigration Reform or Has He Always Been Consistent?

Nov 5, 2015
8:59 PM

This past July, Vox’s Dylan Matthews wrote a story called “Bernie Sanders’s fear of immigrant labor is ugly,” where Matthews proceeded to lay out the case that the Democratic presidential candidate held immigration views that were troubling, at least according to Matthews. The crux of the Vox story centered around what Sanders told Ezra Klein:

“Open borders?” [Sanders] interjected. “No, that’s a Koch brothers proposal.” The idea, he argued, is a right-wing scheme meant to flood the US with cheap labor and depress wages for native-born workers. “I think from a moral responsibility, we’ve got to work with the rest of the industrialized world to address the problems of international poverty,” he conceded, “but you don’t do that by making people in this country even poorer.”

Matthews responded with this:

There are two problems with Sanders’s view on this, one empirical and one moral. He’s wrong about what the effects of an open-border policy would be on American workers, and he’s wrong in treating Americans’ lives as more valuable and worthy of concern than the lives of foreigners.

Soon enough, Sanders was addressing his “open borders” comments with Fusion’s Jorge Ramos:

Last month during the first Democratic primary debate, Sanders was asked again about his immigration record, particularly about a 2007 bipartisan bill that did not pass in the US Senate:

A Washington Post article from 2007 chronicled why the bill never passed and how it was a blow to President George W. Bush:

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), one of the bill’s architects, compared the fight to the Senate’s long struggle for civil rights legislation against segregationist opponents.

“You cannot stop the march for progress in the United States,” he said.

To that, Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), among the bill’s most aggressive foes, snapped: “To suggest this was about racism is the height of ugliness and arrogance.”

In truth, opposition to the bill was far more complex than proponents were letting on. In crafting a delicate compromise, the bill’s 12 architects created a measure that was reviled by foes of illegal immigration, opposed by most labor unions and unloved by immigration advocates. Opposition came not only from radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage but also from the American Civil Liberties Union and the AFL-CIO.

The outcome was a major blow to Bush, dealt largely by members of his own party. The president made a last-ditch round of phone calls in the morning to try to rescue the bill, but with his poll numbers at record lows, his appeals proved fruitless. Thirty-seven Republicans voted to sustain the filibuster, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), along with 15 Democrats and liberal Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.). Thirty-three Democrats, 12 Republicans and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) voted to cut off debate and move to a final vote.

Before that 2007 vote, Sanders appeared on CNN with Lou Dobbs to discuss his position:

Here are excerpts of what Sanders said in that 2007 segment:

The reality is that I think a growing number of Americans understand that what happens in Congress is to a very significant degree dictated by big money interests. And these guys are basing their – their whole ideology is based on greed. They’re selling out American workers and in fact they’re selling out our entire country and that is a major struggle that we have got to engage in to take back our country from these very powerful and wealthy special interests…

Of course there is hope that we can change that. And I think there are a growing number of Americans who understand that there’s something wrong when the middle class in this country continues to shrink despite a huge increase in worker productivity, poverty continues to increase. Since Bush has been president, 5 million more Americans have slipped into poverty. Six million Americans more have lost their health insurance and the gap between the rich and everybody else is growing wider. So when President Bush tells you how great the economy is doing, what he is really saying is that the CEOs of large multinationals are doing very, very well. He’s kind of ignoring the economic reality of everybody else and that gets us to the immigration issue. If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are now.

Two Sanders video on the floor of the Senate during the 2007 debate are now also available on YouTube. Here is what Sanders said at that time:

The Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act is a long and complicated bill. It touches on a number of very important issues, and some of those issues I strongly agree with, no question. The time is long overdue that we control our borders. No question, the time is long overdue that we begin to hold employers–those people who are hiring illegal immigrants–accountable. Those items are long overdue, and we have got to deal with them. This legislation does that. I support that.

As I think we all know, this is a long and complicated bill. An important part of this bill deals with illegal immigration–how do we make sure we stop the flow of illegal immigrants into this country; how do we finally begin to deal with employers who are knowingly hiring illegal immigrants; what do we do with 12 million people who are in this country who, in my view, we are not going to simply, in the middle of the night, throw out of this country. These are difficult and important issues. On those issues I am in general agreement with the thrust of this legislation. But, Mr. President, I wish to tell you there are areas in this bill where I have strong disagreement, and one is the issue of legal immigration, what we are doing in terms of bringing people into this country who, in my view, will end up lowering wages for American workers right now.

Latino Rebels reached out to the Sanders campaign for comment about what the Vermont senator said in 2007. Cesar Vargas, who officially joined the Sanders team last month as a part of the campaign’s Latino outreach team, shared the following statement with via email:

Senator Sanders is consistent in his immigration record to protect immigrant and worker rights and he could not vote for the Bush-backed immigration legislation that would have allowed multi-national corporations to bring workers without labor protections that undermine working conditions and wages for all Americans. Indeed, a Sanders administration would authorize and substantially increase funding for the Legal Services Corporation to provide legal representation to guest workers who have been abused at the hands of corporate-employers or outsourcing firms.

Indeed, the Senator as President has committed to renewing and expanding Executive Action programs that protect undocumented immigrants and will fight to mobilize millions of Americans to support comprehensive and humane immigration reform policy.