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Immigration, a central issue for Trump, also key issue at Democratic debate

Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren and six other candidates took the stage to introduce themselves to votes in Miami. (Video: The Washington Post)

A second wave of Democratic contenders seeking to oust President Trump from the White House backed a path to U.S. citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in a debate Thursday night that called for a new era in immigration policy.

The 10 Democrats onstage in Miami signaled that they had been whipsawed by Trump’s massive immigration crackdown, a central aspect of his presidency and something he has been emphasizing as he embarks on his reelection campaign.

Trump’s tough-on-immigration tactics have included a “zero-­tolerance” policy last year that separated thousands of parents and children at the U.S.-Mexico border, an attempt to rescind deportation reprieves for young immigrants known as Dreamers, expanding immigration jails to hold a record 54,000 immigrants a day — up from approximately 33,000 a day under Obama — and forcing thousands of asylum seekers to await their immigration court hearings in Mexico.

Immigration is the emotional focus of first Democratic debate

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said Trump has “torn apart the moral fabric of who we are.” South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg called the president’s family separation policy “dead wrong.” And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) vowed to use his executive authority, if elected, to erase Trump’s policies.

2020 Democratic candidates decried migrant detention facilities on June 28, after attempting to visit a center in Homestead, Fla. (Video: Reuters)

“On day one, we take out our executive order pen and we rescind every damn thing on this issue that Trump has done,” Sanders said to cheers.

But the Democrats also had to confront the party’s role in creating and funding a federal immigration system that set the stage for Trump’s tighter enforcement.

President Barack Obama backed a path to U.S. citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, but he also pushed immigration enforcement and ramped up deportations. By the end of his second term, Obama had removed more than 2 million immigrants from the country and failed to pass immigration reform. Critics called him the “Deporter in Chief.”

Trump deported 256,000 migrants last fiscal year, far lower than the 400,000 people Obama’s administration deported in 2012. Trump recently vowed to deport “millions” of migrants as a way to thwart an unprecedented influx of Central American families streaming to the southern border.

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) distanced herself from Obama on immigration during the debate, noting that she had opposed his expansion of Secure Communities, a fingerprint-sharing program that alerts Immigration and Customs Enforcement when an immigrant is arrested for a state or local crime, including minor traffic offenses.

“I disagreed with my president,” she said.

She and others said migrants with little or no criminal records should not be deported.

Joe Biden, who served as Obama’s vice president, said that administration sought to address “root” causes of migration, and he pledged to surge “billions” of dollars to Central America to invest in development and encourage people to stay in their homelands. Biden defended Obama’s record.

“Compare him to what this guy’s doing,” he said, referring to Trump.

All 10 candidates said they would support public health care for undocumented immigrants.

The candidates’ broad support for a path to citizenship for undocumented migrants failed to acknowledge the difficulty of passing an immigration law that would make it possible. Congress has not found common ground on comprehensive immigration legislation since 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a law that gave legal status to approximately 3 million immigrants.

Since then, the undocumented population has more than tripled to 10.5 million, and the Pew Research Center says a typical immigrant has lived in the United States for nearly 15 years. Many have U.S.-born children.

Immigration dominated the first round of the Democratic debate Wednesday night, when Julián Castro, a former secretary of housing and urban development under Obama, challenged rivals to repeal the legal code that makes crossing the border illegally a federal misdemeanor.

The Trump administration had used that law to prosecute parents and separate them from their children at the border last year, because children could not be held in criminal jails. The policy drew bipartisan condemnation.

The Obama administration also prosecuted thousands of immigrants every year for the misdemeanor and other immigration crimes and then swiftly deported them, according to the American Immigration Council.

Lawyers and migrant advocates say Democrats were largely silent on Obama’s immigration enforcement, but they say Trump’s policies have opened the door to a more comprehensive immigration overhaul.

“The issue is more top of mind than it is has ever been in the 20-plus years that I’ve been involved in this issue,” said Ben Johnson, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. “I wish they had been there in the Obama administration. We could’ve stopped this way before it got as bad as it is now. I’ll take latecomers to the party rather than nobody showing up.”

Lorella Praeli, deputy political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said “everyone onstage has to feel a sense of accountability for the kind of system that we have inherited and that has been built over several decades.”

But she said Trump’s enforcement policies force a question: What kind of immigration system does the country want to have?

“We didn’t have this conversation in 2016,” she said.

Cecilia Muñoz, former director of the White House Domestic Policy Council under Obama, said he could be “fairly” criticized for taking too long to set priorities on immigration enforcement. But he ultimately sought to limit deportations to recent border crossers and people convicted of serious crimes, and avoided targeting millions of immigrants with no criminal history.

She said the next administration will have to find a way to address the surge of migrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. In 2016, most migrants sneaking across the border were adults, who are easy to detain and deport from the United States.

Now, parents and minors account for 65 percent of those pouring across the border and into crowded border facilities. More than 144,000 people were taken into custody at the border in May, the highest number in more than a decade.

“The fact of the matter is this would be a crisis under any administration,” she said. “Anybody that wants to get ready to govern is going to have to contend with this.”