In the last debate of the Democratic presidential primary prior to the Iowa caucuses, the word immigration was said twice, once by Sanders and once by Klobuchar. Both times it was said in passing, absent any reference to an actual policy. That debate was themed "America's role in the world" and was billed as a debate on foreign policy. Immigration policy is, of course, intimately connected to foreign policy. From Iraq to Afghanistan to Libya and Syria, the world’s largest refugee crises have resulted from wars the U.S. is deeply involved in. The multiple crises in Central America and Venezuela that have resulted in hundreds of thousands of people seeking asylum here and elsewhere, are also impossible to separate from U.S. policy. The fact that the U.S. is gutting our asylum system by largely offshoring it to Mexico and Guatemala is itself a foreign policy issue. And yet, there was not a single question about immigration in general, nor about refugees or asylum. Indeed, since last June when Democrats issued a number of statements critical of Trump’s border policies amidst stories of children detained in horrible conditions by U.S. border patrol, immigration has faded from Democratic presidential priority.
Certainly part of the reason is that the candidates with the most creative, and critical policy ideas are no longer in the race. Julian Castro set the tempo early by challenging his colleagues on the debate stage to take a stand on repealing the federal law that makes irregular entry a crime. By demanding that immigration be treated as a civil enforcement issue, not criminal, Castro was well ahead of the field in challenging the core element of Trump’s strategic (and false) frame of the “criminal alien.” But Castro was not alone. Cory Booker introduced a plan to essentially eliminate immigrant detention through selective use of executive orders. Kamala Harris supported the banning of private prison companies from immigrant detention, and supported a broad expansion of those people protected by Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals to include current DACA recipient families. Beto came into the debate early, beating everybody but Castro in presenting a comprehensive redraft of immigration laws, that was creative in many of its elements and yet limited by his refusal to join Castro in decriminalizing irregular entry.
All of these candidates are now out of the race. Of those remaining, Warren is the only one to incorporate most of these ideas into a @teamwarren/a-fair-and-welcoming-immigration-system-8fff69cd674e">comprehensive immigration plan. Her plan decriminalizes irregular entry, reduces immigrant detention and ultimately eliminates private companies from detention contracts. She calls for the restructuring of immigrant courts to give them an independent status outside of the Department of Justice, and calls for the restructuring of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Warren and all of the remaining candidates support creating a legislative solution for DACA recipients, the “Dreamers.” And most support crafting a qualified path to citizenship for those people currently living in the U.S. unauthorized.
By and large, however, the Democratic field has limited itself to criticizing Trump when the optics are at their worst (children being torn from parents, and/or detained in horrible conditions in border patrol stations) and otherwise saying little. Substantively, most simply argue for the resetting of policy back to January 20, 2017, failing to note how bad immigration policy was under the Obama administration (or Bush or Clinton).
Trump’s presidency provides an opportunity to do much more. Everything Trump does unveils a systemic problem, and because he cannot seem to talk about immigration in a way that is tempered by a desire for compromise, he rubs our noses in the brutality of that system every day. It is both a horror to watch, and a clear opportunity to actually revolutionize our immigration system - because its inherent brutality is no longer hidden. Trump daily celebrates this capacity for cruelty - a capacity handed to him by the cumulative impact of the policies of five previous presidential administrations, and a political culture saturated in weaponized identity. All have been dragging us closer to the abyss of inhumanity in the treatment of migrants. Trump might well be taking us over the edge as a country. But we can no longer pretend it’s not happening. Assuming, that is, we see Trump’s administration for what it is: A revelation of the worst impulses in our political culture, not their creator.
The Democrats helped create this mess, and now they have a chance to make amends. But first they have to address it. Earlier this week, on the three year anniversary of Trump’s first disastrous policy move, the Muslim travel ban, Marielena Hincapié, Executive Director of the National Immigration Law Center, @NILC_org/muslim-ban-3-year-anniversary-430201b87f2d">wrote:
we need to demand more from the Democrats running for president. More than simply rejecting Trump’s agenda, the candidates must commit to truly transforming our approach to how we talk about and include immigrants in conversations of critical national importance — from health care, to housing, education, and climate change. Our ability to thrive together depends not only on holding Trump accountable, but also on truly changing how we treat our most marginalized communities.
I completely agree. There were hopeful signs early on in the race, but the conversation has faded to the back burner of the primary season. Whoever wins this primary will have to address immigration policy in the general election. They need to be building their case now.