(Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Opinion writer

THE MORNING PLUM:

Two of the main headlines coming out of last night’s contentious debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are: The candidates clashed repeatedly on immigration! And: Both promised not to deport kids!

But the actual immigration debate we saw last night in Miami was a big, hot mess that obfuscated more than it revealed. Both candidates seemed to make promises that they almost certainly can’t keep, though in Clinton’s case, more clarification is required before we can be absolutely sure what she promised to do.

The two candidates battled over a range of immigration related issues, but I want to focus on deportations. The details of this dispute really matter — they involve the lives of millions of people, and they have ramifications for the rest of the Dem primary and the general election.

To oversimplify a bit, Univision’s Jorge Ramos essentially pushed both Sanders and Clinton to vow not to deport any children. They both complied. But then the debate snowballed, and they both went on to promise more than that: they also vowed not to deport any undocumented immigrants who are not criminals or public safety threats. Clinton said this:

“I will not deport children. I would not deport children. I do not want to deport family members either, Jorge. I want to, as I said, prioritize who would be deported: violent criminals, people planning terrorist attacks, anybody who threatens us. That’s a relatively small universe.”

Similarly, Sanders said: “I will not deport children from the United States of America.” And Sanders went on to promise not to deport any undocumented immigrants who don’t have a criminal record.

What this amounts to in practice is a pledge not to deport any undocumented immigrants who would have been legalized by the Senate comprehensive immigration bill, which has been estimated at around nine million people. Sanders has already made a promise along these lines: He and his campaign have repeatedly said he would expand Obama’s executive actions deferring the deportation of around five million undocumented immigrants — i.e., Deferred Action for Parents of Americans — to cover that nine million people. So last night’s declaration effectively reiterated that promise.

It’s not as clear what Clinton meant. Clinton has not pledged to expand Obama’s executive actions to cover nine million. Rather, she has only said that she would unclog bureaucratic channels to enable more people to apply for Obama’s already existing DAPA program. In saying last night that she would not deport anyone other than criminals, Clinton could merely have been reasserting support for Obama’s underlying enforcement priorities, in place since 2011, which deprioritize the removal of longtime residents and low level offenders who are not threats. In November of 2014, Obama went further than this, and rolled out DAPA, which extends formal temporary deportation relief and work permits to five million of those people. It’s not clear whether Clinton was merely saying she’d continue to honor Obama’s longtime enforcement priorities — simply deprioritizing the removals of low-level offenders — or whether she was saying she’d formally expand DAPA, as Sanders has promised to do. Her campaign should be pressed for clarification.

The larger point here is that even Obama’s DAPA program is uncertain to survive the courts. So this promise to go a whole lot farther than that — made explicitly by Sanders, and hinted at by Clinton — is a very big one indeed, and there is no reason to assume that it can be honored, at least in the form it was made last night. The candidates need to be asked to explain how their promises would be met and why they would pass legal muster.

A point of clarification: The “kids” referred to in this exchange are those who were part of the wave of new arrivals that drove so much controversy in 2014 — a population that is distinct from the nine million. Both Clinton and Sanders said they would not deport any of the kids. In saying this, both candidates were in effect saying the kids should be granted asylum as people fleeing violence in Central America (though Sanders said this more explicitly than Clinton did). But again, they subsequently went a lot farther than that in their no-deportation promises.

More clarity on all these matters is essential, because they are going to blow up in the middle of the presidential race.  Another wave of Central American migrants may be coming this summer. Donald Trump will surely demagogue that to the hilt if he’s the GOP nominee, casting Dems as soft on immigration and putting new pressure on them to articulate exactly where they stand on what should happen to the new arrivals — should they all be granted asylum? “We’re expecting a summer surge, because conditions continue to deteriorate in Central America,” Frank Sharry of America’s Voice tells me. “It’s going to become a huge political issue in the presidential election.”

Meanwhile, a Supreme Court decision on Obama’s DAPA is coming this spring. If it doesn’t survive, what will the Dem candidates say at that point about their own vows of executive action to protect the undocumented? If Democrats are going to respond effectively to Trump’s mass-deportations stance and all-around immigration demagoguery, they’ll need clear, solid answers to all of these questions.

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* TRUMP CRUSHING RUBIO IN FLORIDA: A new Fox News poll finds that Donald Trump is dominating among likely GOP primary voters in Marco Rubio’s home state: Trump has 43 percent, Rubio has 20 percent, Ted Cruz has 16 percent, and John Kasich has 10 percent.

Of note: “Trump also leads Rubio among the quarter of Florida Republicans who report having already voted: 47-22 percent.” The polling averages now have Trump beating Rubio by 41-29. Rubio continues to insist he’ll remain in the race through Tuesday, however.

* TRUMP BEHIND KASICH IN OHIO: A new Fox News poll also finds that John Kasich now leads Trump in Kasich’s home state: Kasich has 34 percent, Trump has 29 percent, Cruz has 19 percent, and Rubio has seven percent. The polling averages put Kasich ahead of Trump by the same margin.

Even if Trump does win Florida, denying him a win in delegate-rich Ohio could complicate his ability to win a majority of the delegates outright, perhaps helping force a contested convention.

* BERNIE TO KEEP HITTING HILLARY ON TRADE: Sanders senior adviser Tad Devine leaves no doubt that he will continue slamming Clinton over NAFTA (a deal reached on Bill Clinton’s watch) and over her own equivocations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership:

“Trade will be front and center in Ohio, Illinois and elsewhere, and we will be expanding on the arguments against free trade deals that we made in Michigan. We’ll be making the explicit connection between trade and being beholden to special interests that want trade deals. Bernie’s argument is that the people who are rigging the economy are also rigging the trade deals.”

As noted yesterday, Clinton will likely respond by sharpening up her economic message. But this could matter in coming primaries in Rust Belt states.

* REPUBLICANS DIG IN AGAINST OBAMA IN COURT FIGHT: Politico’s Seung Min Kim reports that Senate Republicans are circulating a polling memo that supposedly shows that not giving Obama’s nominee any hearing is good politics for them:

The memo, obtained by POLITICO, makes the case that a majority of voters would prefer to keep deceased Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat empty — for a year or even longer — rather than allow Obama to nominate a liberal justice that would move the court to the left.

Okay, but Obama may well nominate a moderate. Regardless, if Trump tightens his grip on the nomination, even as an actual nominee gains media attention, the politics of this stance could deteriorate rapidly for Republicans.

* AMERICANS SIDE WITH OBAMA IN COURT FIGHT: A new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds that 63 percent of Americans say the Senate should hold hearings on Obama’s nominee. And:

It’s notable that by a margin of nearly 2-to-1, independents side with Democrats on this. Among independents, 62 percent say the Senate should hold hearings, while 32 percent say the Senate should not. And even Republicans are pretty evenly split.

Republicans are split, but needless to say, those GOP voters who don’t want Obama’s nominee to get any hearing are the ones GOP leaders will listen to, at least as long as they can.

* SANDERS SAYING IN FOR THE LONG HAUL: Dan Balz explains why and maps out what’s to come:

Next week will bring contests in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina….By next week at this time, if she runs the table or comes close, the conversation might have shifted again, to the reality of the delegate math. That, however, will not deter Sanders. He sees the calendar farther ahead as increasingly favorable….His advisers believe he can win a series of states later in March and beyond, even if he makes much less progress in cutting down Clinton’s advantage in delegates.

Even if the delegate math becomes forbidding, Sanders has every incentive to stay in as long as possible, to build a national constituency of young voters and to try to exert influence over the party’s agenda in the fall elections.