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An Immigrant’s Scorecard of First Democratic Presidential Debates

By Hairo Cortes, Chispa

I tuned into the first Democratic presidential debates last week with few expectations of an honest and needed discussion on immigration. I expected the usual platitudes about how this is a nation of immigrants (hint: it’s not), or about how we deserve better because of the labor we provide–Senator Amy Kobluchar crossed that one off the list. Most of all, I anticipated an evening of eye-rolling with a pissing contest on whose immigration reform policy would be the best one like in 2016, and 2012 before that, and 2008 before that.

All those expectations went out the window on the first night when Julian Castro, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, challenged other candidates to support the repeal of Section 1325 of the 1924 Immigration and Nationality Act. Coming at the height of xenophobia not unlike current times, the provision allowed for criminal prosecutions of border crossings away from official ports of entry. Castro’s move left fellow Texan Beto O’Rourke stunned and off balance for the rest of the night, and reframed the entire immigration debate for all of the other candidates.

Immigrant rights organizers and activists nationwide counted Castro making the repeal of Section 1325 an issue as a big win. It’s the legal basis that made Trump’s concentration camps along the border possible and allowed for the crisis of family separations to grow. But even before Trump, the code proved to be a favored tool of the Obama Administration, which not only oversaw a record number of deportations, but also an exponential increase in criminal prosecutions for reentry–a legacy that Trump has built on.

Unsurprisingly, Joe Biden, whose campaign’s entire appeal is based on Obama nostalgia for the days of mass deportation with a smile, ruled out a repeal of Section 1325 under his watch. It all went downhill for him from there as Senator Kamala Harris contrasted her support for repeal with Biden’s position, and then proceeded to chin-check him on his relationships with Southern segregationists and opposition to school busing.

But when it comes to immigration, Harris has record of her own that should be more closely scrutinized as she positions herself on the progressive side of the issue. Following the passage of the TRUST Act in California, which placed limits on collaborations between California law enforcement agencies and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the enforcement of these protections fell on her as Attorney General.

It was a critical task following years of deportations California residents experienced at the height of the Secure Communities (S-Comm) program, which had enlisted local sheriff and police departments in helping ICE carrying out deportations. But when local law enforcement agencies continued to turn immigrants over to ICE in violation of the TRUST Act, Attorney General Harris sat on the sidelines.

We saw this first hand in Orange County with the case of Samuel Sixtos, which the Weekly covered over the years [1]. Harris’ office refused to hold the Orange County Sheriff’s Department accountable for turning Sixtos over to ICE when they shouldn’t have. That was enough for RAIZ (now Resilience OC), who was handling Sixtos case, and the Immigrant Youth Coalition to hold sit-ins in her Los Angeles and San Diego offices.

As the campaign continues and begins moving into California, this is something Harris should have to answer for. That aside, all the candidates must meet Castro’s challenge and commit to decriminalizing migration as one of the first acts of their administration and with the same vigor with which they have attacked the current administration’s policies.

Hairo Cortes is Executive Director of Chispa