Voters deserve to hear from the candidates on immigration

Voters deserve to hear from the candidates on immigration
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After debates between the presidential and vice presidential candidates, and with another presidential debate planned for Oct. 22, we still have not heard a word about immigration or the content of either candidate’s immigration platform. To make it through the election season without a robust discussion of immigration priorities and policies would be a grave mistake and a missed opportunity to define the contours of one of the most pressing issues of our time.

According to the Pew Research Center, more than half of all registered voters listed immigration as “very important” to their vote in the 2020 presidential election. Among topics for the upcoming debate, asylum policy, border enforcement, immigration detention and travel bans seem ripe for discussion before voters cast their ballots.

Donald Trump ran for president on a proudly anti-immigrant platform. And for many supporters, he has delivered. Within a week of taking office, President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump DOJ demanded metadata on 73 phone numbers and 36 email addresses, Apple says Putin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE released three immigration-related executive orders, including the first version of the now infamous “Muslim travel ban.” Under the Trump administration, more than 5,000 immigrant children, including infants, were forcibly separated from their parents. One of my clients was separated from her 9-year-old autistic son for 48 days; for the first 30 days, she did not know where he was. 


This administration has been responsible for relentless attacks on the asylum process, unprecedented cuts to refugee admissions and, most recently, has sealed the southern border in a demonstrably false concern about public health. President Trump has created a “wealth test” to keep out poor immigrants. He has attacked “Dreamers” and left the lives of more than 300,000 long-term resident immigrants in the balance as he attempts to end temporary protected status (TPS) for nationals of several countries. Foreign students and workers have been kept out in record numbers, raising serious questions about the viability of a post-COVID economy that cannot be restarted with American labor alone. 

Former vice president Joe BidenJoe BidenPutin says he's optimistic about working with Biden ahead of planned meeting How the infrastructure bill can help close the digital divide Biden meets Queen Elizabeth for first time as president MORE, too, has a history on immigration. Obama-era enforcement policies have been rightly criticized by advocates and immigrant communities as overly harsh, along with a deportation rate higher than President Trump’s. Biden now acknowledges that this approach was “a big mistake.” Indeed, if Biden has evolved on immigration issues, that is a story to tell. The Biden-Harris immigration platform offers a study in contrast to the immigration policies of the current administration. They would advance legislation to ensure there won’t be future discriminatory travel bans, and reform immigration policy to provide a roadmap to citizenship for the nearly 11 million undocumented persons now residing in the United States. 

Moreover, the Biden-Harris ticket has pledged to end private detention and expand alternatives to costly immigration detention. Their administration would raise the current refugee ceiling — now at a historic low of 15,000 — to 125,000, bypassing even Obama-era levels.

There’s no doubt that the Democratic primary presented a valuable opportunity to hash out some critical, and timely, immigration issues. Candidates debated everything from decriminalizing immigration to abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to reparations for families separated at the border. Those conversations were important, but the American public’s memory is short — and the news cycle fast and unrelenting. The chasm between the immigration policies of a Trump/Pence administration and those of a Biden/Harris administration cannot be overstated, and these differences should see the light of day.

For starters, on Oct. 22, debate moderator Kristin Welker of NBC could ask what each candidate intends to do regarding the more than 1 million cases backlogged at immigration courts nationwide, or the thousands of asylum seekers who are in limbo — and in danger — at the U.S.-Mexico border, as a result of Trump administration policies that make it more difficult to seek asylum. Americans also deserve to know about the candidates’ plans for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and Dreamers. Trump might be asked whether he will continue a newly announced ICE policy expediting deportations without court hearings. And Biden might be asked what reforms he would institute within the immigration agency.

During the vice presidential debate, Harris’s passing mention of the “Muslim ban” was enough to send me and other immigration advocates into a frenzy. Would this be the moment that we finally heard the discussion of immigration policy we had been waiting for? Though that conversation didn’t materialize in the first two debates, there’s still time. The more than 200 million eligible voters — including 23 million naturalized U.S. citizens and their families and communities — deserve answers.

Sarah Sherman-Stokes is a clinical associate professor and associate director of the Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program at Boston University School of Law. Follow her on Twitter @sshermanstokes.