Dems run left on immigration: Debate features vows of health care for undocumented, deportation curbs
Democratic presidential hopefuls went all-in Thursday on controversial immigration proposals that mark a shift further left for the party -- promising health care for illegal immigrants, no deportations for those whose only offense is being undocumented and the decriminalization of border crossing.
In a striking moment, NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie asked the candidates, who make up roughly half of the 2020 candidates running for the Democratic nomination, if their universal health care plans would include “undocumented immigrants.”
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Every candidate on stage raised their hand -- including former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.
While such a policy plank isn’t entirely unusual for Democrats (Sanders had a similar policy during his 2016 bid), the image of all candidates raising their hands and going on the record with a position once seen as radical fueled Republican arguments that the primaries could produce a candidate with limited national appeal.
President Trump declared the moment “the end of [the] race.”
“All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare,” he tweeted. “How about taking care of American Citizens first!?”
The New York Post printed on its front page an image of the candidates raising their hands and asked: “Who wants to lose the election?”
In 2009, selling his signature Affordable Care Act (known as ObamaCare) to Congress, then-President Barack Obama said it was “false” that illegal immigrants would be covered by the legislation. That prompted a furious Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., to yell “You lie."
“That’s not true,” replied Obama.
But in the current Democratic Party, that restriction seems unlikely to hold. In a further sign of how the party had moved on from the two-term president, Obama was criticized by name by Harris for allowing the deportation of illegal immigrants she described as “non-criminals.”
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“On this issue I disagreed with my president because the policy was to allow deportation of people who by [Immigration and Customs Enforcement]'s own definition were non-criminals,” she said. She also said she told sheriffs they did not have to comply with ICE detainers when she served as California attorney general.
Biden, who served as Obama's vice president, was asked if he would deport “an individual living in the United States without documents” if that was their only offense.
Biden, while defending Obama throughout the debate, said only “if they committed a major crime” should they be deported. It is not clear what constitutes a "major crime." When asked the question again, he said "that person should not be the focus of deportation."
"We should fundamentally change the way we deal with things," he said.
Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies responded to the statements by accusing Democrats of wanting to essentially abolish U.S. federal immigration law.
"So, no illegal alien should ever be deported unless they're convicted of a crime," he tweeted. "In other words, immigration law inside the US would be abolished."
In another “show of hands” moment, candidates were asked to raise their hand if they supported making crossing the border illegally a civil, rather than a criminal, offense.
Only Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., did not raise his hand and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper hesitated, while Biden asked to clarify but then said that the “first thing I would do is unite families…[and] surge billions of dollars worth of help to the region, immediately.”
The fact that all other candidates raised their hands again demonstrated how a fringe policy, suggested earlier this year by former Housing Secretary Julian Castro, has become mainstream among Democrats. Just days before the debate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., came out in favor of such a proposal.
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However, Castro on Thursday denied he supported open borders.
“Open borders is just a right-wing talking point,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what Democrats do on immigration.”
Fox News' Alex Pappas contributed to this report.