Most of the proposals that the contenders have advanced combine long-held Democratic priorities — such as a pathway to U.S. citizenship for millions of people in the country illegally — with lofty rhetoric and plenty of knocks on President Donald Trump.
But many of the candidates have simply scratched the surface of a far deeper issue. Immigrant advocates say they worry that the Trump administration’s hard-line tactics, including a publicized but later delayed plan for a nationwide sweep to deport people living in the U.S. illegally, simply leave Democrats reacting to the White House rather than advancing their own priorities. They hope the debate will be an opportunity for Democrats to own the issue.
“It is hard to avoid seeming reactive when your opponent is caging children, separating families and sending storm troopers into the Hispanic communities,” said Glenn W. Smith, a longtime Democratic political operative in Texas. “Those things have to be loudly opposed, and you can’t pretend they’re not happening.”
But it’s not going to be easy for the candidates to break through, even with two nights of debate slated to be broadcast on three national television networks starting Wednesday.
Trump sees immigration as an issue that riles his base and reminds supporters of why they voted for him in the first place. During his reelection launch last week , the Republican president reiterated his pledge to build a wall along the southern border that left the crowd in a Florida stadium cheering.
That could make it more difficult for Democrats to advance the issue. Sometimes, they even struggle to decry the Trump administration’s actions in real time.
When 20-plus Democrats running for president addressed the South Carolina state party convention this weekend, there was little mention of reports that immigrant children being held at a detention center near the Texas-Mexico border said they didn’t have access to adequate food and water and sometimes couldn’t shower, wash their clothes or get toothpaste and soap.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke highlighted the situation in his convention speech and at a forum sponsored by Planned Parenthood Action Fund, saying, “This cannot be us. This cannot be America.” The other Texan running for president, ex-Obama administration housing chief Julian Castro, said, “This is not how the United State of America should treat people.”
The other candidates mostly stuck to more general criticisms of Trump’s “zero tolerance” immigration policies.
Federal authorities on Monday moved most of the children who were at the facility in Clint, Texas, where they reported a lack of access to basic amenities. But that came only after a Trump administration lawyer suggested in federal court that officials weren’t required to provide items like toothbrushes, soap and blankets at border detention centers.
That something like denying basic services to detained children didn’t more galvanize Democratic presidential hopefuls during the South Carolina convention suggests there may be only so many lines of attack they can lob at Trump given the time and logistical constraints of such a crowded field . It won’t be much easier to dive into substance on a debate stage with 10 candidates and several moderators.
“The human rights violations and basic violations of human decency are topics that should always be at the top of our list as Democrats, and, with this president, you do have to kind of pick the greatest hits because there’s so much,” said Colin Strother, a strategist who has worked with Texas border Democrats in Congress. “But, as a party, if we won’t speak out about the horrendous treatment of children on our southern border, I don’t know what we’re doing.”
Strother noted that the issue could prove problematic for Vice President Joe Biden — currently leading polls among Democratic presidential candidates — since holding children in border detention facilities began during the Obama administration amid a surge of unaccompanied minors going to the U.S.-Mexico border and seeking asylum in 2014. Separating families, however, was never the Obama administration’s policy.
Biden released part of his immigration plan on Monday, proposing that Congress grant immediate citizenship to 800,000-plus U.S. residents who were brought to the country illegally as children. But his outline was heavier on barbs at Trump, accusing the president of an “assault on the dignity” of the Latino community through policies and rhetoric designed to “scare voters.” Trump has said his immigration policies are meant to keep the country safe.
Smith said one way the Democratic presidential candidates could effectively seize control of immigration as a policy would be to explain how the Trump administration’s tougher stances have affected the whole country, not just those residing illegally. He noted labor shortages in some industries and said some communities were less safe since some people stop reporting crimes — or serving as witnesses to wrongdoing — for fear of being deported.
“Get the attention on the broad, negative consequences for everybody,” he said.
O’Rourke is planning to meet Thursday with local leaders and activists opposing a detention center in Homestead, Florida, about 40 miles (64 kilometers) southwest of Miami, where immigrant teenagers are being held. That could draw attention to the issue similar to how O’Rourke did when he toured a tent city that federal officials erected for detained immigrant children last summer in Tornillo, near his native El Paso, which he then represented in Congress.
The Homestead trip might be an important opportunity to highlight immigration away from the debate stage. Florida Democratic Rep. Debbie Jessika Mucarsel-Powell has invited other 2020 candidates to do similar visits.