Activists call for Biden to Bring Immigrants and Immigration into Presidential Debate, Even if NBC and Trump Won't

After the chaotic first debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, much of the focus was on Trump repeatedly interrupting his opponent. But another conversation came into public view on Twitter as well: Where were the immigration questions?

Activists always want their issue to receive prolonged attention from the moderator and candidates, but the sidelining of immigration in the general election matchup has been noteworthy, after the issue was central to Trump's candidacy four years ago, and brought up repeatedly during the Democratic primary.

A main culprit has clearly been the pandemic, which has caused voters to focus on their own health and finances, as well as their family's, amid a sharp economic downturn.

"It speaks to the gravity of the way the pandemic has been handled that an issue like immigration has disappeared from the headlines," 60 Minutes correspondent Enrique Acevedo told Newsweek.

But it also may no longer be the cudgel it once was for the president, Acevedo said, with the majority of voters supporting immigration reform, rejecting family separation, and understanding its value for the nation at a time when essential workers are putting their lives at risk.

A Washington Post column Monday titled "Trump has shifted the country to the left—or at least away from his own views," drove Acevedo's point home.

"Nearly eight in 10 Americans (77 percent) now think immigration is good for the country, the highest share since Gallup began asking this question two decades ago," Catherine Rampell wrote. "Additionally, the share of Americans who say they want increased immigration exceeds those who want it reduced — the first time this has been true since Gallup began asking in the 1960s."

Other Democrats and immigration advocates arrive at the same place about the lack of immigration discourse but in a different way.

Immigration was litigated heavily during the Democratic primary, they say, pointing to Julian Castro mainstreaming the idea of decriminalizing border crossings—a position Biden never supported—which led to criticism of his centrist approach to immigration during the primary, but left him better-positioned to deal with Trump in the fall.

Immigration did not disappear completely, sources told Newsweek, but while it's no longer the president's signature issue on the campaign trail, he continues quietly implementing anti-immigrant policies on a weekly basis.

"They're not using it as a campaign issue, a red meat type of thing, but they've adopted a 'We only have so much time to end immigration and enact as much pain as possible so we're going to do raids' approach," said Jessica Morales Rocketto, executive director of Care in Action, which leads electoral campaigns for 2.5 million domestic workers.

The White House announced immigration raids before Election Day. The Supreme Court also announced Monday that it would take on two cases related to the Trump administration's diverting of $2.5 billion in Pentagon funds to build a wall along the Southern border and the controversial Remain In Mexico policy that has forced 60,000 asylum seekers be kept out of the United States while they wait.

That means there is enough pertinent news to lead into immigration questions from debate moderator Kristen Welker of NBC News, whose topics include "national security," which some expect could include immigration.

Activists say immigration touches many parts of American life, and argue that immigration as a national security issue is a "right-wing talking point," but they say Biden should lean into discussing his vision for immigration because of the contrast between his plans and Trump's.

"There's no reason for him to be afraid, the math doesn't bear that out," Morales Rocketto said. "It motivates white voters and voters of color, and there is good contrast. Anything less than a full embrace is him not understanding where we are in this moment."

Ali Noorani, president of the nonpartisan National Immigration Forum, which has worked with faith, law enforcement, and business groups on immigration reform, said the way in for Biden is messaging on how immigrants strengthen the economy even amid the pandemic.

"What has swallowed up 2020 is COVID-19, but what is keeping the American economy running are immigrants," he told Newsweek. "We have been led to believe that the place you talk about immigrants and immigration is in a national security context. But when 40 percent of food packers are foreign-born and 22 percent of health care workers are foreign-born, we should be talking about immigration in the context of the response and recovery to COVID-19."

In this context, Trump would have to reckon with the Department of Homeland Security classifying farmworkers as essential, Noorani argued, and Biden would have to talk about his vision for the future of legal immigration beyond undoing the worst of Trump's policies.

The Trump campaign also welcomes an immigration discussion, saying that Trump has delivered on his promise with hundreds of miles of border wall, "most of it where only perfunctory barriers existed previously." It also said he earned the endorsement of the National Border Patrol Council, "which represents the brave border agents of CBP, the most Hispanic agency of the federal government."

The campaign painted Biden as beholden to the liberal ideas fellow Democrats espoused during the primary.

"Joe Biden won't use the term but he clearly proposes open borders," senior advisor Steve Cortes told Newsweek. "His running mate Kamala Harris wants to decriminalize illegal border crossing. Biden offers generous incentives for trespassers including taxpayer-funded healthcare and amnesty. These policies would effectively vaporize our border."

But activists said it is the former vice president who now holds the upper hand on immigration.

Marielena Hincapie, the executive director of the National Immigration Law Center (NILC), was named to Biden's unity task force by Senator Bernie Sanders, and served as the co-chair on immigration.

NILC's Immigrant Justice Fund is laser-focused on reaching 130,000 persuadable Latino and white women voters in Arizona, North Carolina, and Wisconsin. The work has shown Hincapie that Trump's attacks on immigrants don't resonate like they used to and persuadable voters are "hungry" for a different vision of America.

If Welker doesn't bring up immigration, Biden should, Hincapie said.

"He has a history of describing immigrants as a strength to this nation, he believes that at his core," she said, citing research that showed that pro-immigrant messages focused on an economy that works for everyone increased support substantially. "He should lean into immigrants—not just immigration—as part of our nation whether he's talking about climate or the economy, whether at the debate or on the trail."

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This combination of pictures created on September 29, 2020 shows Democratic Presidential candidate and former US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and US President Donald Trump speaking during the first presidential debate at the Case Western Reserve University and Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio on September 29, 2020. JIM WATSON and SAUL LOEB / AFP/Getty