In the first debate of the 2020 election cycle, the Democratic presidential candidates on stage were united in their anger over the Trump administration’s immigration policy. But there were also distinct differences among the candidates over how they would change immigration policy if elected.
The immigration portion of the debate culminated in an unusually in-the-weeds exchange between the two candidates from Texas, former Housing Secretary Julián Castro and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, over whether crossing the border without authorization should be a crime at all.
The first candidate asked about immigration Wednesday, Castro called for ending the Trump administration’s so-called “remain in Mexico” policy (which forces asylum-seekers to stay on the other side of the border), the “metering” policy (which limits the number of people given a chance to claim asylum at a port of entry every day) and the “zero tolerance” policy, or the practice of criminally prosecuting everyone who crosses the border illegally.
That last item became a sticking point between Castro and O’Rourke.
The zero tolerance policy formed the basis of the Trump administration’s thousands of family separations, because when adults were jailed for their criminal illegal entry charges, even temporarily, their children were treated as “unaccompanied” and transferred sometimes hundreds of miles away. A judge eventually ordered the end of systematic separations, though they continue in cases where parents have an alleged criminal history, or where there are signs of abuse or other factors.
To address zero tolerance, Castro said Wednesday that he would decriminalize unauthorized border crossings altogether: Right now, first-time unauthorized entry is a misdemeanor and a second-time offense is a felony. Under Castro’s plan, people who come into the country via unauthorized entry would be treated the same as those who overstay visas — as perpetrators of a civil infraction, eligible to be deported, but not prosecuted criminally.
O’Rourke, on the contrary, has only said that people explicitly claiming asylum should not be prosecuted criminally.
“I think it’s a mistake, Beto,” Castro said.
“You’re looking at just one small part of this,” O’Rourke retorted. “I’m talking about a comprehensive re-write of our immigration laws.”
“If you did your homework on this issue, you would know that we should repeal this section,” Casto said, noting there were other sections of the criminal code to address human traffickers, a concern O’Rourke has raised.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) focused instead on economics.
“What I really think we need to step back and talk about is the economic imperative here,” Klobuchar said, pointing to immigrants who became high-powered CEOs. “Our economy needs immigrants.”
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) appeared to agree with Castro regarding decriminalization, saying “there’s no need to repeat [the law regarding human trafficking].”
He called for the President to “immediately ask doctors and nurses to go immediately down to the border and start taking care of these kids.”
“What kind of country are we running here?” Ryan asked, point to horrific conditions reported recently in Customs and Border Protection facilities on at border.
Booker, who’d previously stumbled over some poor Spanish, turned the issue toward criminal justice, saying that it was “repugnant to me that people” — namely private prisons — “are profiting off of incarceration.”
He also called for “making investments in the northern triangle” to address the root economic causes of migration northward.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, given a chance to address detained children at the border, was blunt: “There is no reason for the detention and separation of these children. They should be released pending their hearings and they should have a hearing and the law should be followed.”