On the heels of the first 2020 Democratic presidential debate — which focused heavily on undocumented immigrants and the situation unfolding at the U.S.-Mexico border — the second round of candidates took the stage Thursday night, laying out for the American people where they stand on immigration.
Only three candidates — former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee — have released detailed immigration policy platforms. None of them were on the debate stage on Thursday.
In spite of this, the candidates still publicly backed big policy ideas that would be a huge victory for the millions of undocumented immigrants living, working, and paying taxes in the United States.
Following a discussion on whether the candidates would support a single-payer, Medicare-For-All system, they were asked whether their plans would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants. Everyone on stage raised their hand.
Candidates justified their stance by arguing that it is unjust to have millions of insured undocumented immigrants despite their contributions to the country.
“[O]ur country is healthier when everybody is healthier,” Buttigieg said. “Remember, we are talking about something and people are given a chance to buy into […] They pay sales taxes, they pay property taxes, directly or indirectly. This is not about a handout. This is an insurance program. We do ourselves no favors by having 11 million undocumented people in our country be unable to access health care.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden was initially hesitant to raise his hand, but ultimately conceded that “you cannot let people who are sick, no matter where they come from, no matter what their status, go uncovered.”
This position is a departure from the Democratic establishment and current health care law. For example, the Affordable Care Act does not currently insure undocumented immigrants, forcing them to receive care through free health clinics or emergency rooms — which help drive up health care costs.
In early June, California became the first state to extend health coverage to some undocumented young adults through its Medicaid program. It is expected to be implemented in 2020 and would cover more than 90,000 low-income residents between the ages of 19 and 25.
The 10 candidates were also asked whether they would consider repealing Section 1325 — a part of U.S. law that makes crossing the U.S.-Mexico border without papers a misdemeanor offense. The provision is what the Trump administration used to justify separating immigrant families at the southwest border last summer.
When asked whether illegal entry should be treated as a civil offense instead of a misdemeanor crime, 7 out of the 10 candidates raised their hands. Former Colorado Senator Michael Bennett was the only candidate to abstain, while Biden and former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper tentatively agreed.
In fiscal year 2016, illegal entry and reentry made up a majority of federal criminal prosecutions. Repealing Section 1325 would radically transform the U.S. immigration system and help ensure that immigrants whose sole crime was entering the United States between ports of entry would not be detained or deported.
The fact that Democratic candidates are even being asked this question on a debate stage is remarkable in and of itself, and is emblematic of the party shifting leftward on immigration. It would likely not even be part of the discussion, however, if Castro — who released the first immigration platform in the field — hadn’t made it central to his plan.
Castro released his “people first” immigration policy platform back in April, and his lived experience as a grandson of Mexican immigrants informed much of his decisions when drafting it.
“This antiquated law dates back to the era when my grandmother presented herself at Texas’ Eagle Pass border crossing, remanded as an orphan to her nearest relatives in San Antonio,” Castro wrote in a post on Medium, describing Section 1325. “That decade — the 1920s — the U.S. government moved to cut off a wave of Mexican immigrants like her.”
Since then, Warren has publicly praised Castro’s plan and has also backed decriminalizing Section 1325, though she hasn’t released a comprehensive immigration plan yet. Former Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan also called for its repeal in the debate on Wednesday.
President Donald Trump, for his part, was not impressed with the Democratic candidates’ positions. Immediately after all the candidates showed support for extending coverage, he weighed in on Twitter.
“All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited health care. How about taking care of American Citizens first!?” Trump tweeted.