Democratic presidential candidates have focused on healthcare, student debt and climate change, but few have given the same level of attention to immigration.
That started to change Friday, as the 2020 hopefuls poured into California, where immigration has been a front-and-center issue for decades.
Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee promised hundreds of immigrant rights advocates at a Pasadena forum that they would push through immediate legislative and executive action if elected.
They railed against President Trump’s actions, such as trying to build a border wall and his efforts to ban visitors from several Muslim-majority countries.
“We have a president who is a racist, who is a pathological liar, who thinks that he can win reelection by dividing the American people up based on the color of our skin, or where we were born, or our religion, or our sexual orientation,” Sanders said.
At a nearby rally earlier in the day, Sanders told hundreds of supporters that “America must never be a country where babies are snatched from the arms of their mothers.”
The moderators and questioners from the forum audience pressed the quartet to pursue comprehensive immigration reform — including a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally — within the first 100 days of taking office. Harris, Sanders and Castro agreed; Inslee said he would pursue such legislation “as soon as humanly possible.”
Harris said Trump built his candidacy on “vilifying immigrants, on this multibillion-dollar vanity project of his called the wall.” Since then, she said, fear of deportation has affected immigrant families’ lives: children terrified a parent won’t return home from work; a parent avoiding seeking medical care for a child; a rape victim not reporting the crime to law enforcement.
“There are real consequences to real human beings,” she said. “That’s why the first 100 days is important to me.”
In committing to pursuing change quickly, Castro obliquely criticized his former boss, President Obama, whom he served as HUD secretary. Obama said he would push for immigration reform in the first year of his tenure — at a time when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress — but instead launched his signature healthcare overhaul.
“I think that 2009, 2010, what we learned is don’t wait,” Castro said. “We can’t wait this time to push immigration reform.”
The candidates pledged to take executive action immediately after taking office to undo many of Trump’s policies, including those that ended protection for young people who were brought into the country illegally as children as well as the temporary protected status for immigrants whose home countries are grappling with war or natural disaster.
The forum took place less than 24 hours after Trump announced that he would impose a 5% tax on Mexican imports unless the country stopped Central American migrants from crossing into the United States. The tariffs, which would start in two weeks and escalate monthly until they hit 25%, are expected to cause economic upheaval in the U.S. and Mexico; the plan was panned by some of the president’s Republican allies.
Yet the tariffs were not discussed onstage at the immigration event. Castro later told reporters backstage that Trump has engaged in an “erratic trade war” with Mexico.
“These tariffs are a terrible idea. They’re going to hurt jobs all over the country,” particularly in places like Arizona and Texas, Castro said. “They have nothing to do with the end goal that the president has stated.”
Although the Democratic field has been vocally opposed to Trump’s actions on immigration, few have released detailed policy proposals, a point the forum’s moderators hammered.
“There are 23 candidates. I have only seen three [policy proposals]. That is unacceptable,” said Dorian Warren, president of Community Change Action, one of the forum’s three sponsors. “We must demand it from all of the candidates who want to be president of the United States.”
Castro, the only Latino in the Democratic field, was the first to unveil a plan in April. In addition to providing a pathway to citizenship for those in the country illegally, his plan would increase refugee admissions, reimagine border security, end raids targeting asylum seekers and repeal an act that makes crossing the border without permission a criminal violation rather than a civil infraction.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas released a plan Wednesday that would rescind Trump administration immigration policies; seek a legislative pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally; cut off federal funding for private, for-profit detention centers; overhaul the immigration court system; send 2,000 attorneys to the border; and invest $5 billion in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to address the root causes of migration.
Inslee released a plan Friday morning that would exceed the target of resettling 110,000 refugees in the U.S. set by the Obama administration in its final year. It would also restore foreign aid to Central American countries to address the causes of migration, including climate change, Inslee’s signature issue.
At the forum, Inslee attacked the Trump administration’s proposal to shift from a family-based to a merit-based immigration system.
“What he means by that is, ‘merit’ means ‘looking like Donald Trump,’ ” Inslee said. “That is not what this country means, OK? I believe this: Being a father has merit. Being a mother has merit. Being an uncle has merit. Being an aunt has merit.”
The four candidates appeared in Pasadena before heading to the California Democratic Party convention in San Francisco, where they will court thousands of activists, power brokers and delegates who could be crucial allies in the state’s March 3 primary, which was moved up from June.
At the Friday forum, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who flirted with a run for president but decided against it, noted how unusual it was to see so many candidates in California.
“Isn’t this amazing to see presidential candidates come here and talk to us?” he said.