PASADENA, Calif. (CN) – Less than a year before the U.S presidential primary election in 2020, a host of Democratic candidates said at a forum Friday that if elected they would overturn the Trump administration’s policies on immigration and both expand and restore protections for immigrants.
Immigration was a central theme of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, with the former reality TV star referring to immigrants on the campaign trail as “rapists” and members of criminal gangs pouring across the nation’s borders.
Three years into his presidency, Trump and senior officials in his administration can’t escape scrutiny for immigration policies which the administration said would stem the flow of migrants and asylum seekers into the country, but have instead spurred nationwide condemnation over the separation of migrant children from their parents.
For the field of 24 Democratic candidates who are seeking their party’s nomination in the 2020 presidential race, immigration has been both an issue they cannot ignore and one they’ve been largely silent on.
But Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and California Sen. Kamala Harris – both of whom are behind former Vice President Joe Biden in recent polls of likely voters – said at Friday’s forum that they would endorse both executive action and legislation to protect immigrants.
Sanders – who took the stage to a standing ovation from the crowd which chanted, “Bernie, Bernie!” – immediately pivoted from the forum’s immigration focus and touched on campaign mainstays: climate change, campaign finance reform, universal health care and higher education.
“I am not smoking anything today when I tell you not just that we can have immigration reform, but that, if you have the ability and desire, you can get a higher education regardless of income,” Sanders said. “That’s not a radical idea.”
Sanders – who is an independent but is running as a Democrat – told the crowd that young people will have to vote in even larger numbers in 2020.
Tyler Sinness, a 17-year old student from Antelope Valley, California, said he found Sanders’ approach upsetting, saying that the Vermont senator should have explained specific policy proposals.
“I’m disappointed in how Bernie steered the conversation away from immigration,” Sinness said. “It’s great that he talked about health care, education and climate change, but he didn’t relate those issues to immigrants.”
Sinness – an activist who said his grandmother is an immigrant – said he will be old enough to vote in next year’s primary and that while he has not made up his mind on who to support, he appreciates Harris’ “pragmatic approach” to policy making.
Harris was more specific about the policies she would enact as president to benefit the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
Harris told the crowd she would use executive action to restore temporary protected status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which have been repealed under Trump.
“I’m the proud daughter of California and the proud daughter of immigrants,” Harris said. “We will fight for you, on behalf of your parents and on behalf of the soul of our country.”
Harris, who told the audience Trump’s policies on immigration are “hate-driven,” also said she would audit the private detention industry, which houses large numbers of migrants, often in unhealthy conditions.
Harris, along with Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-WA, introduced the Detention Oversight Not Expansion Act last year, which would increase congressional oversight of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers and halt funds for construction of private detention centers.
Forum organizers – the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles Action Fund, Firm Action and Community Change Action – said in a statement Friday that past conversations with candidates have largely excluded immigrants and their experiences.
CHIRLA Action Fund director Angelica Salas said in the statement that “immigrants don’t always fare well” in elections, adding that previous presidential campaigns have either ignored immigrants or demonized and scapegoated them.
“Today, we will have none of that,” Salas said.
Immigrants from across the country took turns on stage asking the candidates questions and telling them about their experiences.
Grace Pai with Illinois Immigrant Action said her family “benefited immensely” from visas that allowed members to care for each other after a death forced the family’s relocation.
“We have to look beyond economic arguments,” Pai said. “Compassionate policies don’t need any justification.”
Dorian Warren, president of Community Change Action, said the immigration conversation should include experiences of black and Asian migrants as well.
“The issues impacting immigrants are also impacting black communities and vice versa,” Warren said. “We make up a voting bloc with unmatched power and candidates have to earn our vote.”
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and former U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary Julian Castro also spoke at the event.
Castro was the first candidate to release an immigration plan, which calls for decriminalizing all border crossings and reinstating temporary protections for migrants, in addition to backing a national immigration bill in Congress.
Castro told the crowd Friday the immigration reform battle was “personal” for him, given his experiences with his grandmother, who came to the country from Mexico.
“This president believes he will win the election on backs of immigrants and I’m here to tell you he will lose,” Castro said. “Instead of cruelty we should choose common sense and compassion.”
Castro, who spotted his twin brother Texas Rep. Joaquin Castro in the crowd Friday, also called for a “21st century Marshall Plan” to fund economic development in Honduras, Guatemala and other countries whose populations are streaming north to escape violence or to search for opportunities.
Before Inslee took the stage, moderators informed the crowd of the mass shooting that took place in Virginia Beach earlier in the day that claimed the lives of 11 people.
Marta Duran, an immigrant from El Salvador, told Inslee she was working as a janitor in 2017 in Las Vegas during a shooting massacre that claimed the lives of 59 people.
Duran asked Inslee to increase access for immigrants seeking the U-visa, which is set aside for victims of crimes who have suffered mental abuse and who are willing to assist law enforcement in investigations.
Under Inslee’s governorship, Washington has introduced the nation’s first public option for health insurance and crafted a plan to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Last week, Inslee signed a state bill restricting local police from asking people about their immigration status, adding to a chain of similar so-called sanctuary state bills on the West Coast.
On immigration, Inslee repeated some of the promises of the other candidates – such as restoring TPS protections – and said the Evergreen State would expand the number of refugees it takes in while also funding development in countries reeling from climate change-related disasters.
“I’m so angry that such a beautiful nation has been besmirched,” Inslee said regarding Trump’s actions on immigration. “But we should channel that anger into the positive force of electing the next president.”
On the Virginia Beach shooting, Inslee was solemn but direct.
“Some people say we shouldn’t talk about gun reform legislation after there’s been a shooting,” Inslee said. “But I believe this is exactly when we should talk about passing comprehensive gun reform laws.”