Analysis Politics

Immigration Takes Center Stage at Democratic Town Hall Event

Tina Vasquez

Immigration was a major focus during MSNBC and Telemundo’s Democratic town hall event in Las Vegas on Thursday, and those most affected by immigration policies were able to ask former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) some of the questions.

During MSNBC and Telemundo’s Democratic town hall event in Las Vegas on Thursday, those most affected by immigration policies were able to ask former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) some of the questions.

The town hall event began with Sanders, who fielded the first immigration question of the night, from Luisa Valencia, a 20-year-old Nevada resident and a recipient of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which enables undocumented immigrants who meet certain requirements to receive a renewable work permit and exemption from deportation for two years.

Valencia pressed Sanders on his decision to vote against immigration reform in 2007 because it wasn’t “perfect,” as she put it: “As president, would you veto our shot at immigration reform if it wasn’t deemed perfect by you?”

Sanders has expressed concern that the terms of 2007’s immigration reform would take American jobs. In July, during a Q&A with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the senator said, “There is a reason why Wall Street and all of corporate America likes immigration reform, and it is not, in my view, that they’re staying up nights worrying about undocumented workers in this country. What I think they are interested in is seeing a process by which we can bring low-wage labor of all levels into this country to depress wages for Americans, and I strongly disagree with that.”

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Sanders continued, “I frankly do not believe that we should be bringing in significant numbers of unskilled to workers to compete with [unemployed] kids. I want to see these kids get jobs.”

Sanders in recent months has changed his reasoning for voting against immigration reform in 2007. The senator now says it was because of guest worker programs such as the H-2 program overseen by the U.S. Department of Labor, which provides temporary farm workers and non-farm laborers for a variety of U.S. industries.

The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that the H-2 program is “close to slavery” and Sanders has repeatedly said H-2 and programs like it are “akin to slavery.” Sanders said this at January’s Fusion Television Brown and Black Democratic Presidential Forum and again at Thursday’s town hall. He said he voted against the legislation in 2007 in agreement with large Latino organizations because of guest worker programs.

“Guest workers came in, and if they didn’t do what their bosses wanted them to do, if they didn’t accept exploitation and cheating, then they’re going to be thrown out of this country,” Sanders said Thursday. “And many of those workers were terribly, terribly exploited. And that was the major reason that I voted against that. I don’t want to see workers in this country exploited.”

Sanders went on to say he wants to take the roughly 11 million undocumented people currently in the United States “out of the shadows,” meaning they no longer have to hide their citizenship status and remain vulnerable to exploitation because of it. “As president I will do everything that I can to pass immigration reform and a path toward citizenship for those who today are undocumented,” he added.

The bar placed on those seeking citizenship was discussed when a woman, who petitioned for her undocumented husband who lived in the United States for 18 years, asked Sanders what he would do for people like her, who try to bring their loved ones “out of the shadows,” only to have them sent back to their countries of origin for as long as ten years, as a requirement for residency.

Immigration laws are complicated and affect people differently depending on their specific circumstances, but for those who entered the United States without inspectionthat is, entered illegally—green cards must be applied for in their country of origin. Upon attempting to re-enter the United States without inspection for a second time after applying abroad, a ten-year bar is automatically triggered.

Sanders said he could not say how long it would take him to change these policies as president, but he did say what is happening with these these bans is “unacceptable” and that his immigration policy is to unite families, not to divide them, something he reiterated on social media.

Immigrant rights advocates have long discussed the ties between immigration enforcement and the U.S. criminal justice system and how they see deportation as no longer separate from the criminal system but an extension of mass incarceration. Advocates say Republicans and Democrats fail to acknowledge the complex realities of migrants’ lives. President Obama, for example, famously said he would prioritize “felons, not families” for deportation, but, according to advocates, he has failed to recognize that being a hardworking parent and being a “felon” are not mutually exclusive.

One exchange at Thursday’s town hall hinted that a more nuanced view of immigrants with criminal records is beginning to emerge.

Wayne Smith, vice chairman of the Nevada Democratic Veterans and Military Families, explained at the town hall that “hundreds of veterans” who have served in the military as legal U.S. residents and who “ran afoul of the law for possession of illegal drugs, or another non-violent crime” upon being discharged from the military, not only had their legal status revoked, but were deported to countries they were not familiar with, and forced to leave their young children behind.

Sanders called this “an outrage.” The senator said undocumented immigrants convicted of non-violent crimes should not be deported. “We should not be sending people back to a country that they could barely remember, and a language they may not be able to speak,” Sanders said.

Sanders said that immigration reform that addresses these issues will be a “top priority” as president.

At Thursday’s town hall, Clinton sidestepped on her first question on immigration. When asked why, during a Democratic presidential primary debate in 2007, she opposed giving undocumented people driver’s licenses, she said “it was a state-by-state determination” and she was “happy” that “most states” have moved in the right direction to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.

However, only ten states and Washington D.C. provide undocumented immigrants with licenses. Clinton quickly moved on to address the woman who asked Sanders what he would do about ten-year barsand Clinton’s surprising response has made headlines.

“I will end the three and ten-year bar provision so that you do not have to face that ever again,” Clinton promised.

It’s been a week of promises from Clinton, who on Thursday released an ad in Nevada that featured a 10-year-old girl crying, expressing her concern that her parents, who received deportation orders, would be deported. In the ad, Clinton invites the young girl to sit on her lap, saying, “I’m going to do everything I can so you don’t have to be scared. You don’t have to worry about what happens to your mom and dad, or somebody else in your family .… Let me do the worrying. I’ll do all the worrying. Is that a deal? I’ll do the worrying. I’ll do everything I can to help, OK?”

Like President Obama, who promised to tackle immigration reform during his first year in office, Clinton said on Thursday that she “absolutely” promises to introduce priority legislation for immigration reform during her first 100 days in office and that she will do everything she can “not only for the young people who deserve the highest protection, but for their families as well.”

Part of this, it seems, is upholding DACA and voicing her support for Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), which was challenged by the State of Texas and will soon be heard by the Supreme Court. DAPA would grant deferred action to undocumented immigrants who have lived in the United States since 2010 and who have children who are American citizens or lawful permanent residents, among other requirements.

When asked at the town hall if she would move to help DACA recipients become legal permanent residents, Clinton said, “I will do everything I can to make sure that they are kept in place. As you know, there’s a court action challenging them. I don’t know what’s going to happen now, because of the Supreme Court situation, but I will renew them. I will go further if it’s at all legally possible. And I will make this a big political issue because we need to keep those young people working, going to school, being productive members of our society.”

Clinton was taken to task regarding her now infamous assertion in 2014 that undocumented, asylum-seeking children from Central America should be “sent back.” The presidential hopeful defended her statement in August 2015 at a press conference in Las Vegas, saying, “Specifically with respect to children on the border, if you remember, we had an emergency, and it was very important to send a message to families in Central America: Do not let your children take this very dangerous journey.” 

In response to her 2014 statement, Clinton said at the town hall, “We need to end family detention. I’ve been saying that for a very long time. We need to close the private family detention centers that are making a profit off of housing family members. We need to make sure that every child has due process and is guaranteed counsel. I have advocated that. Again, I thank Sen. Reid because he now has introduced legislation to make that the law.”

Neither Sanders nor Clinton have announced plans to end detention in the United States.

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