MILWAUKEE (CN) – Joining some 20,000 members of the nationwide Latino community, four Democratic presidential hopefuls participated in a town hall forum Thursday at a convention held by the country’s oldest Latino civil rights organization at the Wisconsin Center in Milwaukee.
The League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, focused its 90th annual convention and exposition on Wisconsin as a critical battleground for the 2020 election.
Against the backdrop of blistering criticism of dire conditions at immigrant jails along the nation’s southern border, and the potential for raids of thousands of families by Immigration and Customs Enforcement as soon as Sunday, immigration and border policy were at the forefront of each candidates’ time.
The first to take the stage was former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, the only Latino candidate in the crowded Democratic field and the first to introduce an immigration plan back in April.
When asked about his immigration proposal, Castro singled out former Vice President Joe Biden and former Texas Congressman Beto O’Rourke as being on the wrong side of the immigration issue.
Castro and O’Rourke had a notable clash during last month’s first round of debates when Castro repeatedly questioned O’Rourke over why he would not come out in support of decriminalizing illegal entry into the U.S.
Of the hostile conditions at the southern border, Castro noted: “A lot of the folks that are coming today are presenting themselves at the border … it makes no sense to make policy out of fear.”
Castro outlined that he would repatriate and ensure citizenship for undocumented veterans who have been deported.
Castro also touched on gun reform, including universal background checks, as well as increasing teacher pay through tax credits designed to incentivize underpaid teachers to go into and stay in impoverished school districts.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren responded to a question on immigration by stating that it is “good for the United States.”
“It helps us build a strong economy and connects us globally,” she added.
When asked by an audience member if she would protect mixed status families, encompassing a variety of familial situations where some members are documented while others are not, Warren emphasized Dream Act recipients by asking, “What does it mean to protect a dreamer if members of their family are taken away?”
Warren also handled her touchstone plans, including broadly tuition-free higher education, a 2-cent tax hike on the top one-tenth of 1% of the population and canceling student loan debt.
She also gave particular gravitas to climate change, calling for a moratorium on new drilling, rejoining the Paris climate accord Trump abandoned in 2017 and investing in what she called “the coming $23 trillion market” for green technologies, creating 1.2 million manufacturing jobs in the process.
In terms of policy, Warren shares common ground with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who appeared to raucous applause.
Sanders mirrored some of Warren’s points on “Medicare for all,” a trenchant focus on income inequality, the promise of free higher education and banging the drum against political fealty to giant corporate interests.
All of these are aspects that made Sanders a populist phenomenon during the 2016 campaign, not the least in Wisconsin where Sanders beat eventual Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the Badger State’s primary by 13 points.
Sanders used his first minute on stage to call out President Trump, calling him “a racist, a bigot, a xenophobe and an embarrassment to what this country stands for.”
On immigration, Sanders explained that his own father came to the U.S. at age 17 from Poland not knowing a word of English, referring to him as the exact kind of person Trump does not want in this country.
An interesting moment for Sanders came when an audience member pressed him about health insurance, asking him whether he would give Americans the choice to keep their private insurance under his “Medicare for all” plan.
Sanders answered bluntly: “No.”
He elaborated by saying that “The American people do not love their health insurance companies. What they do love are their doctors and hospitals and nurses.” Sanders claimed that his plan would provide “freedom of choice” in this regard.
Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke was the last to take the stage and enjoyed the crowd’s support from the start.
He began and ended by referencing his home turf in El Paso, Texas, which he noted became one of the safest cities in the nation “because it is a city of immigrants and asylum seekers.”
He blasted the Trump administration’s plan for nationwide ICE raids this weekend, opining that rounding up migrants that have committed no crime “will make us less safe as a country” by encouraging immigrant communities to fear law enforcement, making them less likely cooperate in investigations, report crimes or act as witnesses.
O’Rourke also addressed a question from the audience on the environment, proposing a $5 trillion investment over 10 years in the people and technologies that will curtail the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.
O’Rourke promised to bring back a true middle class by elevating unions as well as enshrining a $15 minimum wage and paid family leave for all American workers.
The candidates’ success hinges on a prolonged, focused presence in Wisconsin, a key state in a region that experts say Democrats regrettably neglected during the 2016 presidential election.
Come 2020, one of the nearly two dozen Democrats jockeying for position will have a big chance to do so as the party nominee up the street from the Wisconsin Center at the Fiserv Forum, where the Democratic National Convention will be held July 13-16.