There were two moments that stood out for me at Wednesday night’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. The first was a question from the Washington Post’s Karen Tumulty, who asked both Democratic candidates if they considered frontrunning Republican president candidate Donald Trump to be a racist. Both Hillary and Bernie declined to offer an outright “yes,” despite the fact that Trump is currently one of the country’s most prominent racists.
The second was a series of pressing questions from Univision’s Jorge Ramos trying to pin Sanders and Clinton on whether they would promise to not deport undocumented immigrant children and immigrants who do not have criminal records. Both candidates did pledge that they would not target children and would prioritize deportations to immigrants with criminal record and those who, in Hillary Clinton’s words, “anybody who threatens us.”
These were important moments, and I think they’re connected.
Let’s start with the policy issue. By promising to not deport children and immigrants without criminal records, the Democratic candidates have staked out a position that is to the left of the Obama administration. For all the grief Barack Obama gets from Republicans for being a wimp on immigration who refuses to enforce the country’s laws, his administration has implemented some harsh crackdowns on undocumented immigrants and presided over record high numbers of deportations. Clinton and Sanders spared no effort to convey just how much they disagree with the Obama administration’s enforcement policies and, accordingly, pledged to shield huge segments of the undocumented immigrant population from deportation.
So what does this have to do with Donald Trump being a racist? Well, in a weird way, Trump is providing Democrats the opportunity to make a strongly liberal and compassionate pitch on undocumented immigration than they otherwise would. One of the important things to remember about the Obama administration’s immigration crackdown is that it was motivated in large part by politics – before entering into negotiations over comprehensive immigration reform, the White House wanted to demonstrate to Republicans in Congress that it was serious about enforcing immigration laws. The human cost of that calculation was steep, and in the end it still wasn’t enough to meet the House GOP’s extreme standard for enforcement. Obama tried to work with the Republicans on their own terms, and he found that it was a lost cause, which precipitated the issuing of executive orders shielding certain immigrant populations from deportation.
Trump has embellished the hardline posturing of the congressional Republicans and mixed an explicitly racial component into it. He wants to build an impossibly large wall to keep out all the drug dealers and rapists he claims the Mexican government is sending over the border. Trump has dragged the entire Republican immigration debate to the fringes of far-right thought, calling for policies that are cruel and, in some cases, illegal, and the rest of the presidential candidates have followed him down that frightening path.
With the GOP following Trump’s lead and calling for draconian crackdowns and the removal of every undocumented immigrant in the country, the Democrats have a freer hand to make the compassionate case that undocumented immigrants are actual human beings who should be folded into the fabric of American society rather than rounded up and shipped off like cattle. Republicans will in all likelihood attack Hillary and Bernie for their “lawless” promise to spare children from deportation, but the Democrats’ policies will look downright reasonable when stacked next to the insane anti-immigrant malice of Donald Trump.