Chasm on Immigration Between Biden and Trump Could Mean Debate Fireworks

While immigration was central to Donald Trump's rise to power and election as president, the issue has receded as the pandemic and the economy have taken center stage. But Democrats and Republicans say it could return in a big way at the high-stakes first debate between Trump and Joe Biden, because both men fundamentally disagree on the role of immigration in American society.

Biden's support for immigration is not new. He was speaking about immigration making America great nearly 35 years ago, when Ronald Reagan was trying to pass the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, better known as his "amnesty law," which legalized undocumented immigrants.

Biden, who was then a senator from Delaware, spoke in favor of the amnesty bill, arguing that immigration has always been in the national interest, saying that "the amnesty program in this bill represents the best of that tradition. By turning strangers in our midst into friends and neighbors we trust."

Now running for president in a heated election, Biden again shared this worldview on Tuesday in an interview with Telemundo's José Díaz-Balart, saying that immigrants had the courage to get on a boat, a car, or cross a border for better opportunity—and then he turned to Trump.

"It takes optimism, it takes determination, it takes courage, and that's who we are," Biden said. "And he's the antithesis of that."

It's a message Biden could hammer given the opening at the first presidential debate of the general election on September 29. Moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News, the debates, and particularly the first, will provide the biggest audiences of voters for both men, after matchups between Trump and Hillary Clinton four years ago averaged nearly 75 million viewers.

But while Biden believes immigration strengthens America, there is also distrust of the former vice president among the kinds of immigration activists who push both parties, due to deportations under Barack Obama.

"We have yet to hear how he really sees immigrants and Latinos as an integral part of building a country that works for all of us," said Cristina Jimenez, who informally advised Biden's campaign on immigration in the summer of 2019, and is co-founder of the United We Dream Action PAC. "He got into a bit of that in his Latino agenda, but he's not campaigning on it."

The debate will come at a time when Biden is trying to rally Latino voters to his side after subpar polling numbers nationally and in Florida among Hispanics, a point that was not lost on Jimenez.

"Biden needs Latinos to vote in big numbers to win," she said, suggesting that an inclusive, welcoming vision on immigration counter to Trump's restrictive one would excite Latino and immigrant voters, and let them know Biden will fight for them.

Trump rode down an escalator at Trump Tower in 2016 to declare his candidacy and rode anti-immigrant sentiment to the White House, calling undocumented immigrants who enter the country from Mexico criminals and rapists who bring drugs into the country. As president, he has fought tooth and nail to build a wall along the southern border, moved to dismantle the asylum system, and instituted a controversial zero tolerance policy that led to family separation of migrants, all in the service, he argued, of preserving American jobs.

The Trump campaign previewed its view on immigration ahead of the first debate in a statement to Newsweek.

"President Trump believes that immigration is not only a national security issue but an economic one, especially as America moves to re-open," said Ken Farnaso, the campaign's deputy national press secretary. "Voters are concerned about Joe Biden's plan to grant amnesty for 11 million illegal immigrants while simultaneously sidelining Americans who are jobless because of the coronavirus."

Immigration is still a key issue in the campaign, and will be in the debate, a Republican strategist said.

"The way Trump wins this debate is by interweaving immigration into the economic discussion," said Bryan Lanza, a Trump campaign and transition official in 2016. "Millions of people have lost their jobs, and the last thing American public policy should be is to allow cheap foreign labor to come in to replace Americans who have lost their jobs."

Lorella Praeli, president of Community Change, an organization that works to empower immigrants, women, and people of color, knows what it's like to do debate prep from her time as Latino outreach director for Clinton four years ago. The time to dig deep on policy in a 90-minute debate just won't be there, but she said Biden should make the contrast clear.

"We're going to go into a debate with the incumbent president who has utilized the last four years to drive a xenophobic immigration agenda," she said, "so Biden needs to lean in not just into attacking the president and his policy positions, but laying out his vision for this community."

Activists say that vision should go beyond rescinding Trump policies on day one, as Biden has said he will do, to a comprehensive immigration bill, which Democrats have so far been unable to get through Congress.

In the Telemundo interview, Biden said he will reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that Trump has repeatedly sought to terminate, which provided work authorization to young immigrants brought to the country as children. Although admitting that it took the Obama administration too long to get immigration right, Biden slammed Trump before stressing a major promise.

"There are still thousands of people who are being separated from their families," he said. "They're deporting people that are standing outside of church, waiting to come out after mass. There are going to be no deportations in the first 100 days of my [administration.]"

Freezing deportations for the first hundred days of his presidency to get a handle on what is going on within the immigration system is a change activists pushed for during the primary. But they said in the rapid-fire crosstalk of a debate with Trump, the most important thing will be for Biden to show that he views immigration far differently than the president at a foundational level.

The policy particulars are less important, they said, than a clear commitment to a bold restructuring of a system that has become a "horror show" in the eyes of Latinos and immigrants.

"In the end it's a debate between courage and fear," said Chris Newman, general counsel for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON).

He said the president wants white people to be afraid of non-white people, immigrants to be afraid of him, and Americans to be scared of refugees.

"Trump is peddling fear," Newman said, "and the question all of us have is whether Biden will summon, channel, and defend the courage of immigrants."

Praeli, like other activists who spoke to Newsweek, said Trump makes no apologies for his right-wing immigration agenda, and neither should Biden for his worldview. He must show that he won't govern from a position of scarcity and fear on immigration and other issues, she argued, but from a position of "strength, power, and possibility."

"You've got to put forward a vision," she said. "Trump puts forward his vision every time he has the mic."

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From Left: Mandel Ngan/AFP, Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty