LAS VEGAS — Days before the presidential caucus in Nevada, the first significantly diverse state to weigh in on the 2020 primary, candidates on the stage at Wednesday’s Democratic debate only briefly discussed immigration, amounting to one question followed by immigration protesters drowning out Joe Biden’s closing statement.
Moderators waited until the final 20 minutes of the two-hour debate to ask a direct question about immigration — and when they did, it centered around DACA, the program for young immigrants brought to the US illegally as children which the Trump administration has attempted to rescind, and Democrats have a consensus that they will work to protect and further.
“About 700,000 young people known as DREAMers, or Sonadores, who were brought to this country as children, are currently protected from deportation because of a program that is now under the review by the Supreme Court,” Noticias Telemundo senior correspondent Vanessa Hauc asked Sen. Amy Klobuchar. “If the court sides with the Trump administration, which is eager to end this protection, what exactly is your plan to protect the DREAMers permanently?”
“To win, to beat Donald Trump. The best way to protect the DREAMers is to have a new president. There are the votes there to protect the DREAMers. And I have been working on this since I got to the United States Senate. In my first campaign, I actually had a bunch of ads run against me because I was standing up for immigrants,” Klobuchar replied. She added that the next president should “pass comprehensive immigration reform, which creates a path to citizenship to so many hard-working people, will bring down the deficit by $158 billion, and will bring peace for these DREAMers.”
Pete Buttigieg then challenged Klobuchar over voting to confirm Kevin McAleenan, Trump’s nominee for head of Customs and Border Protection, and for having once voted to make English the national language.
“When it comes to immigration reform, the things that you are referring to, that official that you are referring to was supported by about half the Democrats, including someone in this room. And I will say this: He was highly recommended by the Obama officials,” Klobuchar said, adding that she worked on a 2013 comprehensive immigration reform bill — "I'm sorry that Sen. Sanders actually opposed that bill, and I worked on it. And if we had gotten that bill done, there would have been a path to citizenship for so many people.”
Sanders voted in favor of the 2013 bill after opposing the first reform bill in 2007. He has been criticized for pushing against measures in both bills, but has defended his 2007 vote because he says that bill included measures that would have given employers additional leeway to abuse immigrant workers.
Sanders and Biden have been neck and neck with Latino voters in polls for months. Sanders has received endorsements from two major immigrant rights groups so far, while Biden has drawn protests over his refusal to directly apologize for mass deportations under the Obama administration and for his immigration plan not being as progressive as Sanders’.
On Wednesday, protesters with immigrant rights group RAICES shouted down Biden during his closing statement, chanting “don’t look away,” “no kids in cages,” and referencing the 3 million deportations that occurred under Obama.
“For us it's really, really frustrating to see that for the past three debates about immigration there has been zero conversation,” said Erika Andiola, chief advocacy officer for RAICES and a former staffer on Sanders’ 2016 campaign. “Now that it’s Nevada, it's really for voters in the state that’s so diverse — it has so many young people who are children of immigrants. Literally immigration came as the last issue and they ran out of time … we wanted to remind people and especially the Democratic Party and Biden that immigration is something we want to hear about.”
Andiola added that the group has invited all of the candidates to discuss immigration in Texas, but since none have agreed, “This was our way of saying, if they’re not going to comply, we’re going to come to you.”
The group specifically wanted to speak to Biden, she said, because of his defense of the Obama administration record, his policies, and because his campaign has been saying that they’re relying on voters of color in states more diverse than Iowa and New Hampshire to keep their campaign afloat.
Biden, after being interrupted by the RAICES protesters, said, “I think it's important that on day one, day one, we deal with sending an immigration bill to the desk. The only person in here that has a worse record on immigration is Bernie, because Bernie voted against the 2007 bill … had, in fact, that immigration bill passed, there would be, 6 million members would be now American citizens.”
“Unfortunately, LULAC, among other groups, Latino groups, saw that bill having provisions akin to slavery, Joe,” Sanders responded.
Earlier in the night, another immigrant rights group, Make the Road Action, unfurled a banner near the debate venue calling for ICE to be dismantled and for an end to deportations. Make the Road Action endorsed Sanders last month.
“I was really disappointed by how little time and how simple the question on immigration was,” said Leo Murrieta, director of Make the Road Action Nevada.
“It’s a disservice to immigrants and to immigrant families,” he added.
Murrieta said he wanted to hear the candidates pushed on aspects of immigration like decriminalizing border crossings and the way ICE and CBP work. Some of those topics came up in earlier debates because then-candidate Julián Castro brought them up.
Another major immigrant rights group, founded by DACA recipients, United We Dream Action, protested Biden at the last debate in Des Moines.
“Tonight's conversation on immigration was not substantive, especially in a state as diverse as Nevada,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, UWD Action’s deputy executive director and a DACA recipient.
Nevada’s Latino and Asian American communities are rapidly growing groups of voters, and hold particular sway here as members of the state’s powerful unions. Latinos are expected to add up to around 20% of caucusgoers on Saturday.
Curtailing immigration and targeting immigrants already in the US continues to be a central plank of President Donald Trump’s policy agenda and reelection campaign.
“As the Supreme Court weighs a decision on DACA, the sole immigration question was spent on Amy Klobuchar who hasn’t even released an immigration plan,” Martinez said. “What we need from a presidential candidate is for them not only to say they are the anti-Trump. They need to present a vision that moves away from stale talking points on immigration about ‘comprehensive immigration reform.’ That hasn’t worked and these candidates need to move on!”