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Democratic presidential candidates stay vague on immigration

Trump looks to toughen immigration policy
Trump looks to toughen immigration policy 06:28

When President Trump traveled to San Antonio, Texas, for a fundraiser this week, he told reporters that "the border is going to be an incredible issue" in his re-election campaign and that Democrats would pay "a very big price in 2020."

On the same day in the same city, former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro held a rally and criticized the president's immigration policy. While there, Castro was asked why he was the only candidate in the vast field of Democrats who had released a comprehensive immigration plan.

"We know that this is the issue that this president has made front and center in his campaign. So why wouldn't every candidate have an immigration plan?" said Castro, whose grandmother immigrated to the United States from Mexico.

Castro, who led the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration, is polling at the bottom of the pack of Democratic White House hopefuls. It is not yet clear if he will even qualify for the first primary debate, which will take place in Miami in June. Meanwhile, the candidates trending towards the top of the crowded and fluid field have focused their campaign pitches around economic issues.

While most candidates critique Mr. Trump's rhetoric and policy on immigration, frequently referencing his administration's child separation program on the campaign trail, few have made the issue of immigration central to their own campaigns. Democratic activists have taken notice, and argue that while it's still early in the primary campaign, candidates will have to go on offense on the issue in order to beat the president.

"Democrats need to say more than Trump is cruel and Trump has failed," says Frank Sharry, founder and executive director of the pro-immigration group America's Voice. "Both of those are true and what voters in the Democratic primary electorate and in the general public really want to hear is what are we going to do about it."

Mr. Trump made immigration central to his first campaign. And even though the president's focus on the caravan backfired for down-ballot Republicans in the 2018 midterms, Mr. Trump plans to reprise the playbook. With the purge of top officials from the Department of Homeland Security this week, Mr. Trump signaled that an aggressive approach to immigration would be a centerpiece of his 2020 re-election campaign.

Democrats point to their success in the 2018 midterms as proof they can effectively counter Mr. Trump's immigration strategy. Voters "recoiled" after they saw what Trump's immigration rhetoric actually looked like as policy, says Tom Jawetz, vice president of Immigration Policy at the liberal Center for American Progress.

But they also acknowledge that presidential campaigns present a different set of challenges.

"Just fighting back against the president, while central, is not offering an affirmative vision," says Jawetz. "I hope the Democratic candidates will also engage the president on the issue of immigration."

Democratic policy experts say the candidates should focus not only on a longer term vision, but also on ways to address the current issue of an increase in asylum seekers.

"Voters want solutions. Democrats should articulate the ways in which we should address the root causes of migration that have caused the humanitarian challenges at the border and how we can create a fair immigration process that allows people to earn citizenship," says Tyler Moran, director of the Immigration Hub, a progressive group. Mr. Trump's policies "are not just galvanizing the Democratic base but also hurting Republicans in the suburbs, with women, and with independents."

Castro released an immigration proposal last week that would provide a pathway to citizenship to undocumented immigrants, including for "Dreamers" and those under temporary protected status. It would also repeal current law that makes illegal border crossings a criminal offense, revamp the visa system, and restructure the U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE), among other proposals.

Castro is one of a handful of presidential hopefuls from a border state this cycle, including California Sen. Kamala Harris and Former Texas Rep. Beto O'Rourke.

O'Rourke represented the border town of El Paso in Congress, and is basing his presidential campaign there. Earlier this year, he held a dueling rally when Mr. Trump visited the city to talk about the border wall. O'Rourke begins his campaign stump speech by talking about his hometown as an example of the success of immigration. But he hasn't yet released a detailed reform plan.

Asked about his immigration policy during a campaign swing through New Hampshire last month, O'Rourke told reporters he backed citizenship for Dreamers and a pathway for their parents and bringing undocumented immigrants out of the shadows. "We don't need walls, we don't need to militarize our borders," he said. "We need to rewrite our immigration laws in those ways that I just described that reflect our values, the reality on the ground."

On Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Mr. Trump's "fear mongering" on immigration could fall flat if economic insecurities are addressed. "If we can give people confidence in some of their insecurities about their own economic situation, I think there will be a better atmosphere among some who are opposed to immigration in the country," she said. "We have our principles that we've established: secure our border, respect the dignity of people coming here, have a path to citizenship that is a strict one."

Democratic strategists say that the party has learned from 2016 that simply dismissing the president's rhetoric on immigration is ineffective. "Democrats and activists were caught a bit flat footed in 2016," says Sharry. "I promise we won't be caught flat footed in 2020." 

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