The Democratic presidential candidates at Tuesday’s debate all agreed that President Donald Trump’s policy of taking immigrant children away from their parents and locking them up is wrong. They just disagree on whether the government should repeal the law Trump used to justify it.
Some candidates at the CNN-hosted debate pushed back hard against the idea of decriminalizing unauthorized border-crossing, an idea growing steam among some progressives ― and pushback from former government officials. Decriminalizing unauthorized immigration wouldn’t mean it goes unpunished; migrants could still be put in deportation proceedings in civil courts, but those cases wouldn’t clog up the criminal justice system.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) voiced the strongest support for the idea during Tuesday’s debate ― the idea’s top booster, former Obama administration official Julián Castro, is appearing in Wednesday’s lineup ― while many others insisted the problem isn’t the law, it’s Trump.
“Right now, if you want to come into the country, you should at least ring the doorbell,” Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) said, adding that the president could still separate families even if unauthorized immigration was decriminalized. “We’ve got to get rid of Donald Trump, but you don’t decriminalize people just walking into the United States.”
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said decriminalizing unauthorized immigration and giving health care to undocumented immigrants — an idea supported by candidates including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) — was “playing into Donald Trump’s hands.”
“The challenge isn’t that it’s a criminal offense to cross the border,” Bullock said. “The challenge is that Donald Trump is president and using this to rip families apart. A sane immigration system needs a sane leader, and we can do that without decriminalizing [or] providing health care for everyone.”
Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) argued that decriminalizing unauthorized border-crossing would help prevent things like family separation.
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) said he believes crossing the border without authorization should still be a criminal violation, except in the cases of children and families seeking asylum. He said that he would take multiple steps to expand access to legal status and citizenship for undocumented immigrants and work to improve conditions in Central America.
“Then I expect that people who come here follow our laws, and we reserve the right to criminally prosecute them if they do not,” O’Rourke said.
Some of the candidates, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, said they believe Congress should change laws to reform the immigration system, but didn’t voice support for decriminalization. Hickenlooper suggested making a law that kids cannot be taken from their parents ― “How hard can that be?” he asked.
Warren pointed out that her push to repeal the law that criminalizes unauthorized border-crossing would be aimed at just that.
“One way to fix it is to decriminalize. That’s the whole point,” Warren said. “What we’re looking for here is a way to take away the tool that Donald Trump has used to break up families.”
One candidate tweaked his stance, criticizing the past debate’s call for a show of hands in which he gestured in support of decriminalization. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg said he’d support criminalization in certain cases, which some observers viewed as a walkback.
“In my view, if fraud is involved, then that’s suitable for the criminal statute,” Buttigieg said, adding it should be handled under civil law otherwise.