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Advocates demand focus on immigration at Sunday’s debate



Immigrant rights groups were anticipating that a presidential debate in Arizona — where Latinos make up nearly a third of the population — would focus Democrats on an issue they say has received scant attention during the primary.

Now that the debate has been moved to Washington, D.C. Sunday night in response to the novel coronavirus outbreak, they’re calling on the debate moderators as well as Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders to address immigration at length. The debate, airing on CNN, will be moderated by Jake Tapper, Dana Bash and Univision’s Ilia Calderón.

Democrats, say immigrant-rights advocates, need to show they have an effective response to President Donald Trump, who’s made clear he’ll put the issue at the center of his reelection bid.

“We expect that Trump will still use immigration as a signature wedge issue against whoever the Democratic nominee is. And if they’re not prepared, then that’s going to be a blind spot,” said Domingo Garcia, head of the League of United Latin American Citizens.

The president has spent $500,000 this year on TV ads focused on immigration. On Facebook alone, Trump has spent $5.7 million on ads mentioning immigration, the wall, the border, or immigrants from January 2019 to present day, according to researchers at the Online Political Transparency Project at New York University.

But Democrats have spent little time on the topic during their presidential primary. Out of 1,141 questions asked at the Democratic debates to date, only 76 have been about immigration, according to an analysis by Media Matters, a progressive nonprofit.

As Trump boasts of his dramatic reshaping of the immigration system — from fencing reinforcements to effectively banning all asylum seekers along the border — Democratic hopefuls are ceding ground on the issue, immigration-rights advocates and lawyers say.

“I haven’t heard anything from Bernie Sanders or from Joe Biden and the silence is deafening to Latinos.”

Sanders and Biden issued immigration proposals last year but have rarely made the issue a major part of their stump speeches.

When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Trump’s “Remain in Mexico” policy last week, allowing the administration to continue to force tens of thousands of asylum seekers to stay in Mexico as they await their proceedings, neither Sanders nor Biden issued an official response. The policy has had the effect of Central American migrants being placed in crowded tent camps that put them at risk of exploitation. The Trump administration has virtually slowed asylum to a halt at the southern border and thousands have either been made to stay in Mexico or immediately sent to Guatemala by plane.

“I haven’t heard anything from Bernie Sanders or from Joe Biden and the silence is deafening to Latinos,” said Garcia.

The lack of a response to Trump’s moves is “dangerous” said Marshall Fitz, managing director of immigration for the Emerson Collective, a social change organization. Democrats could have inserted themselves back into the conversation but instead “miss[ed] a political moment.”

Even when Trump talks about the coronavirus, Fitz said, the president casts it through the lens of “xenophobia,” calling it a “foreign virus.” Trump pointed to the virus outbreak as another reason to build a border wall. “We need the Wall more than ever!” he tweeted.

“It’s unfortunate for the public and I think it’s dangerous for Democrats politically to allow themselves to be defined by him and not take the initiative,” said Fitz.

Immigration received heightened national attention among Democrats running for president at the first debate in June. Candidates were forced to answer a question about the photo of a father and child who drowned attempting to cross the Rio Grande and seek asylum in the U.S. And several of them visited for-profit detention centers in Florida at the time to draw attention to the inhumane treatment of migrants.

At that debate, Julián Castro pressed his rivals to take a position on his proposal to decriminalize border crossings. But after that debate, the issue was not a major focal point in the Democratic primary.

Since then, Democrats have rarely made immigration a driving issue on the campaign trail, even as his anti-immigrant push is among the topics Trump spends the most on Facebook highlighting.

Tyler Moran, executive director of the Immigration Hub, a pro-immigration group, called it “unacceptable” that immigration has not had a “more prominent role” during the Democratic debates.

As Trump spent millions on Facebook ads about immigration from 2019 into 2020, Sanders has spent $140,000, and Biden has spent $16,000, according to researchers at the Online Political Transparency Project at New York University.

“We’ve seen that swing voters in particular can be susceptible to [Trump’s] arguments if they don’t hear an alternative,” said Moran. “That’s why we think it’s so critical that Democrats articulate what they’re for.”

A June poll conducted for Immigration Hub in June found that only a third of likely general election voters in a dozen battleground states — including Florida, Wisconsin, Arizona and Michigan — “very well” understood where Democrats stand on immigration, compared to nearly half who knew where Republicans stand. A November poll asking the same question saw no change among general election voters’ understanding of Democrats’ immigration policies, Moran said.