Amnesty International and Buzzfeed News held a Presidential candidate forum on asylum and immigration on February 20 along with several immigration and civil rights groups, ahead of Super Tuesday. Candidates and surrogates fielded questions at the forum, which was held just before the Nevada caucuses. As the first early voting state with a significant non-white and diverse voting population, Nevada’s 2020 primary was a litmus test for Democratic hopefuls on issues of asylum and immigration policy.
“The immigration system isn’t failing us — it is doing exactly what it was intended to do,” Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN) organizing manager Erika Castro said at the beginning of the event. “It was designed to keep people of color and poor people out by using arbitrary laws and policies that are rooted in classism and racism.”
Surrogates for candidates Joe Biden, Tom Steyer and Amy Klobuchar stated they would not commit to abolishing ICE or anything adjacent. Klobuchar’s surrogate Minnesota Senator Melisa Franzen did not say whether Klobuchar would end the practice of ICE agents conferring with local police. Klobuchar and Steyer dropped out of the race prior to Super Tuesday.
Steyer was the only candidate to attend in person. He said he supports the idea of providing amnesty for undocumented individuals currently in the United States. Though Steyer did not state he would eliminate ICE, he committed to ending the relationship between immigration agencies and local law enforcement.
“How was immigration enforced before 2001?” Sanders’ campaign manager Faiz Shakir responded when asked about ICE, noting that Sanders has proposed “breaking up components of what currently exists since September 11,” referring to the creation of ICE and DHS. Shakir said Sanders supports breaking up ICE and having the Department of Justice handle immigration.
Shakir pointed to the $2 billion price tag of deportation, and advocated for using the funds to recreate detention facilities. Shakir said Sanders supports reviewing such deportation orders on a case-by-case basis, arguing that the current US immigration structure and distribution of visas and residency is a class-based system.
“If you are poor, it can be very hard to get into the United States. But if you’re rich — you can buy your way in,” Shakir said.
US Representative Joaquin Castro said Elizabeth Warren is committed to “top to bottom” restructuring of the organization. Castro fielded a question from a former border agent about abuses at the border at the hands of CBP and ICE. He said Warren calls for transparency and accountability within the agency.
“You’re still going to enforce US law, but it wouldn’t come from an agency that has been fairly rogue,” Castro said. He condemned family separations, children in cages and called for a repeal of the Trump administration’s travel ban, adding “we need to make sure we don’t criminalize desperation.”
Nevada State Senator Yvanna Cancela represented former Vice President Joe Biden, who came under fire for the Obama administration’s mass deportations of immigrants. RAICES Action Chief Erika Andiola tweeted that the surrogate dismissed the question:
“It was simple: ‘Will Biden apologize?’ The answer was ‘I feel bad for you.’”
Cancela did say that Biden has heard concerns from activists on the administration’s handling of immigration and deportation, acknowledging it took “too long to get it right.” While Cancela said Biden would commit to ceasing private detention and family separations, but not an end to family detention at large. Biden would also not abolish ICE.
The Democratic primary continues to heat up ahead of March 3, when 15 states, including Texas and California, will hold primaries. Both are home to large immigrant populations and are the two most populous states in the country — a massive combined 643-delegate haul. After popular vote wins in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada, Bernie Sanders leads the race heading into Super Tuesday.