Anyone who had any doubt that the 2020 election was a contest for the soul of the United States had to lose that doubt watching Thursday night’s Democratic debate. The photo of the late Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter, Valeria, drowned in the Rio Grande thanks to Donald Trump’s policies, framed the night. It’s tough to overstate how much Democrats have changed the way they’ve approached these issues in the last decade.
In the 2008 primary cycle, Hillary Clinton’s biggest early stumble was suggesting during a debate that she might support issuing drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants (she then quickly waffled, which didn’t help, either). In 2010, when South Carolina Representative Joe Wilson went down in history for crudely screaming “You lie” at Barack Obama, it was actually during a moment when the president was trying to appease racists.
“There are also those who claim that our reform effort will insure illegal immigrants. This, too, is false—the reforms I’m proposing would not apply to those who are here illegally,” Obama intoned. Wilson was the actual liar. But today, it’s worth noting: Not one prominent Democrat uses the term “illegal immigrants” anymore.
On Thursday night, all 10 candidates raised their hands to say undocumented immigrants should be covered by government health insurance. And unlike when, just 24 hours earlier, Julián Castro berated fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke for being unwilling to make border crossing a civil, not criminal, offense (as it used to be), and the other candidates stood and watched, on Thursday night nine of 10 Democrats agreed with Castro.
Let’s be clear: It’s not that all of these candidates are so progressive, though some are. A generation of immigrant-rights activists got us here. But it was stunning to see four of the five leading Democratic candidates, plus six who’d like to replace them, stand so strong on these issues—especially after the giant disappointment on the congressional border security vote the same day.
That turn was tough for Vice President Joe Biden, who relied on the credentials of “the Obama-Biden administration” often through the night, even though he raised his hand at the right times. One of the sit-up-straight moments of the debate came when California Senator Kamala Harris directly challenged Biden, which she did more than once, telling him “this was one of the very few issues with which I disagreed with the administration.” Harris first nodded to Obama as “my president,” a measure of how tough it is for a black presidential candidate to criticize our first black president.
But she described how as California attorney general she told local sheriffs not to work with ICE because “parents, people who had not committed a crime, even by ICE’s own definition, were being deported” and “as a prosecutor, I want a rape victim to run in the middle of the street and wave down a police officer and report the crime against her…and not be afraid that if they do that, they will be deported, because the abuser will tell them it is they who is the criminal.”
The other candidates vied with Harris to explain why our current border policies are immoral. “The Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion,” said South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Harris’s rival for a slot in the top five in the Democratic race. “For a party that associates itself with Christianity, to say that it is OK to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”
Everyone was Julián Castro on Thursday night, and not just on immigration issues. Castro’s breakout performance Wednesday, aggressively challenging O’Rourke and other candidates, clearly inspired all of the Thursday contenders to talk over one another and ignore the moderators. Although I started out thinking Senator Elizabeth Warren got a break getting to be the lone top-five front-runner on Wednesday night, I changed my mind: This was a real debate, despite the (apparent) consensus on immigration.
Harris may have been the winner of the night, but the powerful movement to not merely challenge the Trump administration’s racist immigration policies but shift the Democrats’ priorities as well was a winner, too. It matters that the front-runners aren’t trying to outdo one another in signaling that they’re tough on the undocumented, or tough on crime, but the opposite. Yet they didn’t deliver much on their actual immigration policies—and, shockingly, the MSNBC moderators didn’t ask them their position on the bill the House passed Thursday afternoon, over the strenuous and correct objections of House progressives.
The activists who’ve changed the debate have an opening to press these Democrats who took a bold stand Thursday night to deliver on specific policies. We’ll see what happens when they do. But for now, after an awful day for immigrant rights, it felt good to see everyone on that debate stage make clear that Óscar Alberto Martínez and his daughter Valeria were not criminals but victims of a lawless president.