At Democratic debate, missed opportunities on immigration

At Democratic debate, missed opportunities on immigration
© Getty Images

Towards the end of Wednesday’s Democratic debate, Joe BidenJoe BidenGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska Jeff Daniels narrates new Biden campaign ad for Michigan MORE was interrupted by protestors in the audience at the Paris Theater in Las Vegas. The former Vice President was launching into his closing statement when immigrant rights activists briefly brought the event to a halt. “You deported three million people,” one shouted, a reference to the record number of deportations during the Obama administration. Before they were escorted out of the venue, the protestors shouted, “No more kids in cages!” and “Don’t look away!”

Yet for nearly the entire debate the candidates and moderators did look away from the issue of immigration. That was a shame, as immigration is a topic deserving of substantive discussion — especially in the most diverse state to vote in 2020 so far.

The Las Vegas debate could have been the ideal moment for the candidates to expound on their immigration platforms. In the days leading up to the debate, Democratic candidates were racing around Nevada, courting Latino voters. The state is nearly one-third Latino, and several of the states that vote on Super Tuesday, like California and Texas, are home to significant Latino populations as well. In a debate co-sponsored by Noticias Telemundo, surely there would be a robust discussion around immigration, right?


Wrong. Immigration did not come up until the last 20 minutes of the debate. It ended up being a single question about how to protect Dreamers, undocumented young people brought to this country as children, if the Supreme Court strikes down DACA, the program that grants them temporary relief from deportation. Only Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharStart focusing on veterans' health before they enlist Durbin says he will run for No. 2 spot if Dems win Senate majority Democrats seem unlikely to move against Feinstein MORE (D-Minn.) was given the opportunity to answer, and she reiterated her support for DACA and comprehensive reform. Other than former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegConservative operatives Wohl, Burkman charged in Ohio over false robocalls LGBTQ voters must show up at the polls, or risk losing progress Buttigieg says it's time to 'turn the page' on Trump administration MORE jumping in to criticize Klobuchar’s vote to confirm Kevin McAleenan as head of Customs and Border Protection, that was about it for immigration.

This was unfortunate, coming after other debates in Atlanta and Des Moines in which immigration was likewise not addressed in any meaningful way. Consider that debate viewers have heard seemingly endless dissections of the candidates’ respective health care plans, and protracted discussions about whether college should be free. Immigration deserves the same attention. To ignore such a critical topic is a disservice to the electorate.

It’s not fair to blame the moderators for largely skipping over immigration. This was a debate in which the candidates were encouraged to engage with one another, and they did. They brought up all kinds of issues — especially as they dogpiled on former New York City mayor Michael BloombergMichael BloombergBloomberg spending millions on Biden push in Texas, Ohio Texas and North Carolina: Democrats on the verge? The Hill's Campaign Report: 2020 spending wars | Biden looks to clean up oil comments | Debate ratings are in MORE — that were not raised by the moderators. There were ample opportunities for the candidates to pivot to immigration when discussing anything from their electability to climate change. However, that didn’t happen. Instead there was petty sniping about one candidate who momentarily forgot the name of the president of Mexico.

It would be a mistake to assume that the Democratic candidates for president are in sync on immigration issues. Do they support undocumented immigrants obtaining drivers’ licenses? What would their administration do with unaccompanied children who arrive at our southern border? Should ICE be abolished? The candidates should able to articulate and defend their positions on such questions, as immigration will be the signature issue in Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpGiuliani goes off on Fox Business host after she compares him to Christopher Steele Trump looks to shore up support in Nebraska NYT: Trump had 7 million in debt mostly tied to Chicago project forgiven MORE’s re-election campaign.

Meanwhile, the Pew Center reports that Latinos are expected for the first time to be the nation’s largest racial or ethnic minority group in a U.S. presidential election, with a record 32 million projected to be eligible to vote. With Latino voters paying attention this election cycle, ignoring a key concern of the community sends a signal that you are taking them for granted. Sanders and Biden, who are doing well with Latinos, should have brought up immigration on their own. Same goes for those candidates who are struggling to win more support from Latinos and communities of color.


True, immigration is not the only important issue for Latinos. In fact, a poll this month by Univision found that health care, improving incomes, and jobs ranked ahead of immigration as the top concerns of Latino voters. But immigration affects the lives of all Americans and it is imperative to know more about the candidates’ views.

If a Democrat does win the White House, he or she will face enormous challenges in undoing Trump’s moves on asylum and refugee policy, improving the conditions in immigrant detention, and re-opening channels for legal immigration. We still don’t know what this all might look like in a possible Sanders, Biden, or Warren administration.

On immigration, the Democratic debate in Las Vegas was a missed opportunity. Not giving more time to such a critical issue was a loss to Latinos, viewers, and voters.

Raul A. Reyes is an immigration attorney and member of the USA Today Board of Contributors.  A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School, he is also a contributor to NBCNews.com and CNN Opinion. You can follow him on Twitter at @RaulAReyes, Instagram: raulareyes1.