The Democratic Debate In Miami Proves That 2016 Comes Down To Immigration

Both Democratic candidates made a big promise: No more deportation of children or non-criminals.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have competed to go furthest on immigration reform.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have competed to go furthest on immigration reform.

Something happened at Wednesday's Democratic debate that rarely -- if ever -- does on such a national stage: An undocumented immigrant, speaking in Spanish, talked about her life and asked the candidates what they would do to help people like her.

It was a striking moment, unlike anything in a debate so far in the 2016 campaign season. And it underscored just how prominent a role immigration has taken, not just among Republicans (where the talk is about the height of border walls), but among Democrats, too. 

Lucía Quiej, a native of Guatemala, was the debate audience member who asked former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) how they would help families reunite after a member has been deported, like her husband was.

"It is time to bring families together," Clinton told her. "And I don't think there's any doubt that we must do more to let stories like yours be heard more widely so that more Americans know what the human cost of these policies are. And I will do everything I can to prevent other families from facing what you are facing." 

Sanders said it was"wrong and immoral" that a parent should be across a border from his children. 

"The essence of what we are trying to do is to unite families, not to divide families," Sanders said.


Quiej's question was the most tear-jerking moment of the night. But it was one of many that touched on Latino concerns and that was conveyed bilingually. 

Two of the three debate moderators, Univision's Jorge Ramos and María Elena Salinas, began their introductions in Spanish and continued to speak it throughout the debate for the Spanish-speaking Americans watching. Immigration got not just a cursory question, but a long and detailed policy discussion. Other issues, such as jobs and education, were framed around Latinos. Puerto Rico, Cuba and Latin American policy got more airtime than at any previous debate.

The Univision-Washington Post debate was held in Miami, ahead of the primary there on Tuesday. Latino voters, not coincidentally, are a major part of the equation in Florida, making up more than 18 percent of the state's eligible voters. Clinton has a decisive lead with Latino voters in Florida, according to a new Washington Post-Univision poll; Sanders needs to change that.

Both Sanders and Clinton made dramatic promises on immigration. Each said they would not deport children or non-criminal undocumented immigrants. It's something that advocates have long advocated, but that President Barack Obama, despite his vows to focus on the "worst of the worst," has not stopped entirely. The fact that Clinton and Sanders made such a promise at all shows just how influential those advocacy efforts have been.

"I will not deport deport children. I would not deport children," Clinton said after Ramos pressed her on 2014 remarks that unaccompanied minors apprehended at the border "should be sent back." 

"I do not want to deport family members either," she added.

Sanders also pledged to change deportation policy.

"I will not deport children from the United States of America," Sanders said, adding that he also "can make that promise" that he wouldn't deport non-criminal undocumented immigrants.

The next president will almost certainly have to deal with the ongoing crisis of mothers and children fleeing Central America for the U.S., which has included raids and deportation of families and minors. Declining to deport any children, when tens of thousands are coming to the country, is a major departure from the current system.

All of which suggests that immigration -- more than perhaps any other policy issue -- is the great divide between Democrats and Republicans this campaign. While Clinton and Sanders criticized to varying degrees the insensitivity of Obama's deportation policy, their potential GOP competitors have strenuously argued that the president has been abhorrently, maybe illegally, lenient. 

No one has made that more of a rallying point than Donald Trump. And on Wednesday night, the businessman was the recipient of criticism from both Clinton and Sanders. Both Democrats skated around a question asking whether Trump is racist, but they skewered him over his promises for mass deportation and mocked his plans for a border wall.

"As I understand him, he's talking about a very tall wall. Right?" Clinton said. "A beautiful tall wall, the most beautiful tall wall, better than the Great Wall of China, that would run the entire border, that he would somehow magically get the Mexican government to pay for, and, you know, it's just fantasy."



Where Democratic Candidates Stand On Immigration