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In The Next Debates, Democrats Need To Explain Themselves On Decriminalizing The Border


During the second round of Democratic presidential debates this week, the candidates ought to debate the decriminalization of illegal immigration, even if it requires pressure from CNN’s moderators. It would be ridiculous to allow the 2020 field to obfuscate on an issue that divides Democrats and remains President Trump’s signature position.

Many expect this week’s debate fireworks to involve economic issues like Medicare-for-All. But as Amy Walter observed in the Cook Political Report, Democrats seem more unified on economics than racial and cultural issues. In a recent NPR/PBS/Marist poll, progressive Democrats think single-payer health care is a good idea by a 68-29 margin, and moderates agree by a 54-40 margin. In contrast, progressives think decriminalizing the border is a good idea by a 66-27 margin, while moderates find it a bad idea by a 43-47 margin.

A similar split emerges in an analysis of the CBS Battleground Tracker Poll data provided to Thomas Edsall at The New York Times. Among registered Democrats in the contests in states through Super Tuesday, Edsall notes: “While 72 percent of very liberal Democrats want candidates to protect immigrants, 42 percent of moderate-to-conservative Democrats share that priority.”

The CBS poll further confirmed the farthest-left voters are disproportionately white, while the moderate-to-conservative bloc is disproportionately non-white. Looking at a range of issues, Edsall concluded: “What the data demonstrates is that the group containing the largest proportion of minority voters is the most skeptical of some of the most progressive policies embraced by Democratic candidates like [senators] Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.”

Indeed, Warren, Sanders and Harris all back decriminalization of illegal immigration in some form. Among the top candidates, only former vice president Joe Biden seems to have reservations about the idea—and those reservations seem weak.

Decriminalizing the border came up during the Democratic debates in June. On the first night, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro pushed the idea of repealing section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act to treat illegal border crossings as a civil matter. Sen. Cory Booker agreed. Rep. Tim Ryan also seemed to agree, which differs from what he told the Washington Post. New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, former representative Beto O’Rourke, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar all dodged the question.

Realizing what happened, on the second night the moderators asked for a show of hands instead. The only candidates who did not fully raise their hands were Sen. Michael Bennet and Biden, who raised his hand half-way, seeking to explain his stance.

Biden ultimately concluded that illegal immigrants who had committed no other offense “should not be the focus of deportation. We should fundamentally change the way we deal with things.” Days later, when asked again about whether he believed the border should be decriminalized, he gave a flat “No. No, I don’t” to CNN’s Chris Cuomo. The current Democratic front-runner needs to be pinned down on the question.

After the first debate, decriminalizing the border became also became a stumbling point for Kamala Harris. “The View” co-host Meghan McCain asked Harris: “I’m going to try to make this as quick and dirty as possible. You’re for decriminalizing border crossings, you’re one of the people that raised your hand at the debate. Do you agree with [Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] that we should get rid of [the Department of Homeland Security] altogether?”

Harris first denied the premise, then admitted it. “That is not correct. I am not in favor of decriminalizing… Let me just be very clear: we have to have a secure border. But I am in favor of saying that we’re not going to treat people who are undocumented, cross the borders as criminals, that is correct. That is correct.”

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was also asked about the issue on “The View,” and waffled: That’s something that I’m looking at. I think decriminalizing could lead to open borders. We need safe, secure borders in this country.”

Warren has made decriminalization, including the repeal of section 1235, a centerpiece of her immigration policy. She was not required to defend decriminalization on the debate stage last month; she ought to be asked about it directly this month.

Sanders was also able to avoid decriminalization during his first debate night. He has told the Washington Post: “Prior to 2005, nearly all border crossings were handled by civil proceedings, and as president, I would return to that standard, reserving criminal prosecution only for security threats and extenuating circumstances.”

Yet on the campaign trail, Sanders previously sounded skeptical of mass illegal immigration, stating: “If you open the borders, there’s a lot of poverty in this world, and you’re going to have people from all over the world. And I don’t think that’s something that we can do at this point. Can’t do it.” Sanders should be asked why he does not share Gabbard’s concern that decriminalization may lead to open borders. He should also be asked whether he wants to repeal section 1235, or rely on prosecutorial discretion as a policy.

Presumably, the point of holding Democratic debates is to publicize the candidates’ positions to the widest possible audience. Border security was a top issue for Democratic voters before the first debates. Party pollster Stanley Greenberg, who conducted dial testing during those debates, found that “getting immigration under control” only grew in importance, probably because the candidates seemed so uninterested in doing it.

How this intraparty split on immigration gets resolved also matters outside the Democratic voter pool. According to the Marist poll, the general electorate opposes decriminalization by a vast 66-27 margin. AFL-CIO survey data provided to Edsall suggest the 10 percent of white working class who are truly independent do not agree with Democrats on immigration. A focus group of Obama-Trump and Romney Clinton voters recently conducted in Macomb County, Michigan circled around immigration when asked about their top issue; their answers rejected the leftist view.

The Democratic candidates are all vying for the chance to debate President Trump, whose opinions on border security are well-known. Democrats, and Americans generally, have a right to know whether Trump’s opponent intends to draw a sharp contrast on the key issue of decriminalizing illegal immigration, or to try to take it off the table. In this second round of debates, if the candidates are shy about taking a position, CNN ought to make them squirm for it.