9 Immigration Questions That Sanders And Clinton Haven't Been Asked In The Democratic Debate

While Republicans debate immigration at length in their debates, moderators for the Democratic debates have mostly left immigration — one of the most controversial and central issues of this cycle — aside.

John Locher / AP

Last week, Republicans debated immigration policy at length — a frequent feature of the party's debates over the last year. Meanwhile, Democrats have not discussed immigration during their last two debates.

But immigration remains one of — if not the — defining issue of this election cycle. The Republicans have moved rightward; the Democrats have moved leftward. And there are major policy differences between not just the two parties, but within them.

Left unasked are questions like the following ones, drawn from conversations with operatives close to each campaign, as well as advocates and leaders who work with business, faith, tech, labor, and undocumented immigrant groups.

1. Clinton and Sanders have said they would go further on executive actions on immigration if Congress will not work on a legislative solution. But Obama's latest actions are stuck in court. How can they go farther than Obama? How will they work with GOP?

Gerald Herbert / AP

"The big takeaway thus far has been that making big immigration promises without a strategy to pass legislation will not pass muster," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which works with business, law enforcement, and faith leaders.

If a legislative solution comes first, how will Clinton and Sanders get Congress to work with them?

"You can't fix the entire immigration system through executive action," he said. "At some point you need to govern."

"What would you do to get Congress to act on immigration reform?" said NCLR president Janet Murguia. "How would you bring them to the table, particularly given the dynamics in the House?"

2. Clinton has said she would stop taking donations from lobbyists for the private prison business, and donated $8,600 in contributions to charity. But what about the money bundled by a former lobbyist for the industry?

Ricardo Arduengo / AP

For-profit prisons and detention centers house undocumented immigrants. Clinton said she would phase out detention centers and adopted the policy after pressure from groups and a meeting with the organization Color of Change.

But Politico reported that Richard Sullivan who was until November a federally registered lobbyist for "for-profit prison operator GEO Group-bundled $69,363 in donations for Clinton in the fourth quarter, bringing his total for the year to a whopping $274,891."

The campaign policy rejecting donations from the private prison business only includes direct donations to Clinton's campaign. Should it extend to lobbyists who fundraise, too?

3. Sanders' plans on various issues have been accused of being unrealistic. Specifically, how would he bring back deported immigrants? How would he give health care to undocumented immigrants?

John Locher / AP

Sanders has said he would return veterans and immigrants deported during Obama's presidency to the United States. How would he do this in practice? How would a program be able to verify who was returning? And how would he get Republicans to agree to this?

During Obama's fight for the Affordable Care Act, the law was carefully written so as to avoid giving benefits to undocumented immigrants because health care is already controversial without adding in the politics of immigration. Is Sanders' plan realistic?

4. How would Sanders and Clinton fix the legal immigration system?

Lynne Sladky / AP

Democrats and Republicans often note (bipartisanship!) that the push for major changes to the U.S. immigration system was undertaken chiefly because, the "immigration system is broken." But too often, Republicans say, the conversation around immigration alienates people who want to do it "the right way."

What changes would the two candidates make to that system? And what would they be willing to give up in exchange for a legislative solution?

"If you have a Congress that isn’t going to work for you and is going to be obstructionist, what will you do to make the legal immigration system work better?" said immigration lawyer David Leopold, who has worked with national immigration groups.

5. In the past, Sanders has opposed temporary worker policies included in major immigration plans on Capitol Hill. Where does he stand on legal immigration? Does increased legal immigration hurt the American worker?

John Locher / AP

Sanders has come under some scrutiny this year for his past votes on immigration bills in Congress — and the way he has talked about the effect of immigration on American wages, for instance, or that the idea of "open borders" is something espoused by the Koch brothers.

Javier Palomarez, the president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (USHCC), said Sanders talks about income inequality, but during a Q&A with the senator and the USHCC Sanders "claimed immigrant workers depress American wages."

"Why should Hispanic voters trust [Sanders] on immigration?" Palomarez said to BuzzFeed News.

6. Clinton came out against Obama's immigration raids in the new year, but in 2014 said many Central American minors who crossed the border should be sent back. Which direction would she favor as president?

Seth Wenig / AP

This tension has been at the center of Obama's presidency: He expanded the power of executive action and deferred the deportation of millions of undocumented immigrants — but he also has come under intense scrutiny throughout his presidency from activists for the number of deportations.

7. Will either Sanders or Clinton commit to making immigration one of their first priorities on their domestic agenda?

Lynne Sladky / AP

In a gridlocked Congress, immigration legislation has stood out for having had broad bipartisan support twice in the last decade. But Obama in 2008 famously chose to focus on health care rather than immigration, which former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel called a "third rail." Would either candidate commit to using limited political capital on immigration first?

8. and 9. BONUS: Martin O'Malley edition!

Andrew Harnik / AP

O'Malley didn't move the dial with voters and suspended his campaign Monday but he was hailed by immigration advocates and influential voices like Ramos for his immigration plan that kept Clinton honest and saw Sanders playing catch up in the Fall.

Gabriela Domenzain, his deputy campaign manager, said she would ask Clinton why she helped kill driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in New York state during the 2008 election.

"How can Latinos trust you when in an election year you killed a long and hard fought battle that Spitzer was willing to shepherd?" she said, referring to the disgraced former New York governor who told David Axelrod in the Fall that her campaign wanted the issue scrapped in 2008. Clinton's comments at the time and waffling during a debate were widely seen as a major gaffe.

Domenzain said her question for Sanders would be why he voted for a 2006 amendment introduced in the House, banning American officials from tipping off the Mexican government about the whereabouts of Minutemen patrols, itself based on a rumor making its way around the fringe parts of the immigration debate.

"It was election year kowtowing to the nativists and Bernie voted to make that cooperation illegal," she said. "I would like to hear him explain that."



A BuzzFeed News investigation, in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, based on thousands of documents the government didn't want you to see.