Cory Booker on Tuesday unveiled a comprehensive plan to "virtually eliminate immigrant detention" and expand protections for illegal immigrants through executive order -- bypassing Congress entirely -- "on day one of his presidency."
The aggressive proposal comes as polls consistently have shown Booker trailing many fellow Democrats in the White House race, including Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Although several of his rivals already have announced similar proposals and even endorsed decriminalizing border crossing entirely, Booker's plan was unique in focusing on the immigrant detention facilities that have attracted national attention in recent weeks.
"When kids are being stripped away from their parents and held in cages, I will not wait for Congress to solve this crisis," Booker said in a statement announcing the plan. "On day one of my presidency, I will take immediate steps to end this administration’s moral vandalism.
"And although there are limits on what we can do to reverse the damage that has already been done to the lives of thousands and to communities across our country, we can put an end to the horror, and turn the page to a new chapter of our history," Booker added. "Our country must have an immigration system that reflects our values, not one that strips dignity away from people fleeing danger, threats, and violence."
Specifically, Booker's campaign said in a written summary of his proposal that he would shut down "inhumane facilities and require all facilities to meet high standards," and "phase out contracting with private prison facilities and county or local prisons."
That proposal alarmed some conservatives. Dan Cadman, a former Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) official and fellow at the Center for Immigration Studies think tank, told Fox News that Democrats wanted to "render it impossible for the government to detain anyone, anywhere, anytime in any facilities."
Private detention centers, he said, often were cheaper and more efficient than their government-run counterparts.
"U.S. government facilities are staffed by officers and employees who have good salaries, mandatory overtime provisions, excellent health benefits and lifetime pensions," Cadman wrote on Monday. "None of that is cheap by any means. While no one wants private facility guards who are underpaid and overworked, the fact is that using the private sector to do this work is not only a more cost effective use of taxpayer dollars, but also frees up the officers and support staff who would otherwise be in such a facility to do different but equally mission critical work."
Booker additionally said he would create "a presumption of liberty for immigrants by reforming the bond process in immigration court." This past April, Attorney General Bill Barr issued an order directing immigration judges to deny bail to asylum seekers apprehended after crossing into the U.S. illegally, even if they have demonstrated a credible fear of persecution in their home country.
Separately, Booker's proposal also would restore and expand "protections for as many Dreamers as possible, their families, individuals with Temporary Protected Status, and those with Deferred Enforced Departure status."
In those respects, Booker's plan largely mirrored the proposals offered by Biden and Harris in June. President Trump has sought to end legal protections for so-called Dreamers, illegal immigrants brought to the country as children who were granted legal protections through the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Both Harris and Biden have proposed making it easier for Dreamers to become citizens and obtain green cards.
An estimated 350,000 people -- mainly from Central America, Africa and the Middle East -- have been awarded Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to live in the U.S. because of violence and natural disasters in their home countries. The Trump administration has moved to revoke some of these TPS designations, although legal challenges that halted some of the changes have been ongoing.
Also on Booker's wish list: expanding access to "legal counsel for all immigrants, starting with immigrant children," pushing to "deprioritize improper entry prosecutions across the U.S., unless an individual poses a public safety risk," and "stopping the practice of terrorizing immigrants in their homes and communities by reforming ICE and CBP practices and increasing accountability."
Booker said he further wanted to stop the Trump administration's hostility toward sanctuary cities that refused to cooperate with federal immigration authorities; to expand asylum applicant pathways; to increase the refugee cap to a minimum of 110,000; and to "reinstate and expand the Central American Minors Program" to allow "more children and their families to apply for asylum in their home countries."
The Booker campaign also said it would ditch the Trump administration's proposed change to the so-called "public charge rule," which would deny more immigrants likely to become reliant on government benefits.
Lost in the shuffle, Cadman told Fox News, was concern for domestic security.
"The truth is that detention of illegal border crossers is a necessity for deterrence -- and critically important in order to cut the umbilical between smuggling and massive illegal entry of hundreds of thousands of unaccompanied alien minors and family units," Cadman said. "Until that is done, the flow will continue unabated, billions of dollars more will flow into the hands of criminal cartels, and many more aliens will fall victim to those cartels, or physically succumb to the harsh circumstances attending their journey northward."
Cadman added: "In their zeal to turn the border into a sponge and at the same time render it impossible even for interior enforcement agents to locate adequate space in which to house deportable alien criminals and undesirables, Democrats are making our communities and our homeland less safe. Almost certainly international terrorist groups and hostile foreign intelligence services are watching carefully and assessing the opportunities that this disastrous course presents."
The issue has become a key point of emphasis for Democrats. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., made the explosive claim that women at a southern border facility were being forced to drink "out of toilets" on Monday, just hours after she toured one such location.
The New York Democrat said people of all ages were being mistreated and were "drinking out of toilets" as the guards laughed at the migrants' plight right in front of her.
She also said she "forced herself" into one of the cells to get a better look and spoke with a woman who claimed the guards were practicing "psychological warfare" on them by interrupting their sleep and calling them "wh---s."
Border Patrol Chief Brian Hastings told Fox News' "The Story" that fresh drinking water is provided to people in custody.
Highlighting the hot-button issue could help Booker continue his fundraising hot-streak. Despite its slow start in the polls, Booker's campaign on Monday reported raising $1 million in the past week and said it added 20,000 new donors since last Wednesday's primary debate.
Virtually every top Democrat endorsed decriminalizing border crossing last week, with a handful of exceptions, including Biden and Beto O'Rourke.
To date, the Booker campaign said it had 110,000 individual donors, closing in on the 130,000 required to make the third and fourth rounds of debates.
The New Jersey senator, in recent days, has attracted some attention by slamming Biden's language on race, saying the former vice president has caused "pain" and "frustration."
And, using an expletive last week, Booker tweeted that Kamala Harris had nothing to prove to those who doubted her heritage.
Fox News' Martha MacCallum, Paul Steinhauser and Nick Givas contributed to this report.