President Donald Trump’s immigration policies have separated thousands of families, curtailed legal immigration, accelerated deportations and threatened mass deportations, and tried to undo protections for young immigrants brought here as children, known as Dreamers.
And while immigration is not the only (or even the most) important issue to Latino voters, the rise in anti-immigration policy and rhetoric from the White House has increased the urgency among advocates to firmly address the broken U.S. immigration system.
Over the past couple decades, Democratic presidential candidates have campaigned on comprehensive immigration reform in efforts to woo the Latino electorate, only for the issue to fall to other priorities.
Barack Obama vowed to pursue a massive overhaul of the immigration system within the first 100 days of his administration, before refocusing his political capital on healthcare reform.
That inaction prompted a backlash from activists before his reelection run, leading to the creation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, also known as DACA. At the same time, during his presidency, Obama was criticized for deportations, which were particularly heavy in the early years of his presidency.
In recent years, Congress has repeatedly failed to reach a bipartisan agreement on the issue.
The immigrant community has long endured unfulfilled promises on immigration reform. Yet there is a sense of urgency among the crowded field of Democratic candidates vying to go up against Trump in 2020 to overturn the president’s punitive policies and support a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants who call America home.
Paloma Guerrero is an Immigrant Justice Corps Fellow at the UNLV Immigration Clinic and has been attending some of the candidate’s immigration roundtables and outreach events in Las Vegas.
“I have seen the conversation around immigration be more public and more urgent,” Guerrero said. “It’s definitely a reaction to this administration’s anti-immigrant agenda and for good reason. Immigration — now more than ever —needs an overhaul and needs to be a priority for any presidential candidate.”
“In the last three years we’ve seen the changes and they’re hard and they’re swift and they’re successful in their anti-immigrant agenda. Any presidential candidate who realizes this realizes that immigration is in need of a dire change and it needs to be addressed,” she said.
Former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, the only Latino candidate in the Democratic presidential race, primary, was also the first candidate to propose an immigration plan. He was also the first to propose the repeal of a provision that makes “illegal entry” into the U.S. a federal crime, leading to the criminal prosecution of undocumented immigrants.
Many candidates have followed suit, including Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Cory Booker.
“He set the bar and every candidate since then has met the bar or gone even further,” Guerrero said, crediting Castro with pushing forward the conversation around immigration. “After that Senator Warren came out with her plan and hers was very similar to Secretary Julian Castro’s, with only slight differences. And after that we saw Senator Bernie Sanders and his plan goes further and is more detailed than any other plan.”
Most plans and statements by Democratic candidates so far have several features in common: protecting Dreamers, increasing the amount of refugees the U.S accepts, eliminating or limiting family detention, increasing foreign aid to the several Central American countries, providing a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S, and ending private detention centers.
Tighter border security has long been sold as the trade-off for comprehensive immigration reform. But candidates have been less eager to tout that on the campaign trail than Democrats have been in prior election cycles.
Reaching Nevada voters
The Real Clear Politics average of four polls in the last month show former Vice President Joe Biden leading among Nevada Democrats with 29 percent. Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are both about nine points behind at 20 percent. A distant fourth is Mayor Pete Buttigieg at 7 percent.
And while Biden is the top candidate in a state where nearly one in five residents is an immigrant and almost one in six residents is a native-born U.S. citizen with at least one immigrant parent, he has yet to release an immigration plan.
“I think realistically a campaign can only ride on Barack Obama’s coattails for so long” said Leo Murrieta, the state director for Make the Road Action in Nevada, the political arm of Make the Road Nevada, non-profit immigrant rights group. “Eventually you’ve got to have your own substance. Without a policy proposal on such a momentous issue, on such an important timely issue as immigration, that’s going to lose you the race.”
”It was his and Barack Obama’s administration who put so many families on the front line of deportation all in the name of security, all in the name of protecting the border, with no regard for protecting immigrant families and creating a humane border that works for our country,” Murrieta said.
When asked about a timeline on the release of an immigration plan, a campaign spokesman for the Biden campaign forwarded a “100 Days to the Nevada Caucus” press release with no mention of immigration.
Biden did publish an op-ed on immigration in the Miami Herald in which he calls for “recognizing that DREAMers are Americans,” an “improved” asylum system, and re-establishing relations with Northern Triangle countries to address “the root causes that push people to flee” their home countries.
Activists like Murrieta, say that is not enough, and with less than 90 days until the Feb. 22 Nevada caucus time is whittling down.
Biden has held events with the politically powerful Culinary Union, whose membership is roughly 55 percent women, and 54 percent Latino. The campaign has not held roundtables with politically active Latino rights groups in Nevada like Make the Road Action in Nevada and Mi Familia Vota.
“He’s making us wait until potentially the caucuses, until February, and then what? Are we supposed to believe that someone who didn’t come ready to the table to talk about immigration reform for an entire year into the election is somehow now going to be ready to have a conversation about immigration reform when they get into the White House?” Murrieta said.
Biden was also challenged over Obama-era deportation policies at an event in South Carolina Thursday, prompting Biden to snap at the questioner, “you should vote for Trump.”
Another candidate polling in the top four in Nevada — though at a distant 7 percent — that has yet to announce an immigration plan is Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“We don’t have a stand-alone immigration plan at the moment but we will be releasing one,” said Marisol Samayoa, the deputy national press secretary for the Buttigieg campaign. She did not not give a timeline for when. She added that immigrant-specific policy is woven throughout the mayor’s policy white papers.
Buttigieg’s website says the candidate wants to “modernize our immigration laws,” take up leadership in humanitarian relief for refugees, and evaluate U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Customs and Border Protection practices.
Buttigieg’s campaign said they have sat down with some local activists about the immigration plan they are working on.
“We are definitely doing the necessary outreach in identifying grassroots organizations that we’re connecting with in Nevada. We also do recognize that we are still in the phase of introducing Mayor Pete to the community,” said Juan Carlos Perez, the Latinx engagement director for the Buttigieg campaign. “There’s always work to be done and we remain committed to pushing that work forward.”
Mi Familia Vota is another group that has been hosting round tables on immigration with community members and campaigns, including recent gatherings with staff and surrogates of the Sanders and Harris campaigns, said the group’s Nevada director, Cecia Alvarado. The group has also been invited to events with other candidates, including Castro and Warren.
“The door is open to any campaign who wants to engage the community and I’m happy to facilitate any space,” Alvarado said. “All the campaigns are well aware that Mi Familia Vota is open to host these round tables. Now it’s up to them if they want to reach us.”
Alvarado said community members have reached out to the organization to learn the caucus process in numbers they haven’t seen before. Much of the group’s work centers on voter participation, and Alvarado said Mi Familia Vota has seen large increases in voter registration and inquiries for candidate events.
“We have seen more engagement, but I believe that’s because we’ve seen more campaigns do work in the community and coming to the community, rather than hosting a rally and expecting the community to show up,” Alvarado said. “What I’ve seen in the past is that they wait till after the primaries to start these conversations with the Latino community,but these conversations have been happening for months now.”
The Sanders campaign has developed Nevada caucus training in Spanish, both in person as well as in online videos. Expanding the electorate through the Latino community is part of campaign’s strategy, and Sanders has received more campaign contributions from Latinos nationally than any other candidate in the Democratic field. The campaign says increasing Latino turnout is a part of their immigration strategy.
“Irrespective of winning the primary, irrespective of winning the general, we need to win policy, and the only way we are going to win policy is having a bunch of people feeling empowered to make those demands,” said Belén Sisa, a DACA recipient and the Latino press secretary for the Sanders campaign. “It’s going to take all of us coming together fighting and pushing.”
Warren has done at least three separate immigration plan house parties, and had conversations with community leaders, volunteers and advocates, said Terrence Clark, the Warren campaign’s Nevada communications director. Warren has also sat down for round tables and had phone conversations with immigration activists. And she also met with multiple groups in Nevada when her immigration plan was being developed, including Make the Road Action in Nevada, Dream Big NV, the UNLV Immigration Law Clinic, Arriba Workers Center Las Vegas, and Legal Aid Center of Southern Nevada.
“Nevada’s Latino’s know how to turn out and this year they are probably going to be over 20 percent of the electorate,” Murrieta said, as a warning to campaigns who fail to engage the Latino community. “Latinx people are going to vote.”