The first Democratic debate of the 2016 presidential campaign was held Tuesday in Nevada, which is home to 529,164 immigrants and the highest percentage of undocumented immigrants of any state. Yet the topic of immigration was not a major topic of discussion, receiving only a few minutes of attention in the 120 minute debate.

Juan Carlos Lopez of CNN en Espanol posed the first immigration question to Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on his voting record on comprehensive immigration reform. From there, the candidates dived into their policy positions on additional key immigration issues. Here’s how they responded:

  1. Addressing comprehensive immigration reform While Sanders did vote for the 2013 Senate Immigration reform bill, S. 744, Lopez questioned his vote against immigration reform in 2007. Sanders explained that vote was due to his concerns around guest worker programs and potential worker exploitation: “Guest workers are coming in, they’re working under terrible conditions, but if they stand up for their rights, they’re thrown out of the country.” Sanders went on to affirm his commitment to a comprehensive approach to fixing our immigration system as well as including a pathway to citizenship.

    Over the course of the debate, no candidate on the stage stated any opposition to immigration reform. Former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsed comprehensive reform. Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley explained that immigration is a positive contribution for all Americans, highlighting a report from the Congressional Budget Office, which found immigration reform would “make wages go up in America $250 for every year.”

    Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb also addressed the issue and said, “I actually introduced an amendment in the 2007 immigration bill … giving a pathway to citizenship to those people who had come here.” However, he was among the Senators  who blocked the 2007 McCain-Kennedy immigration reform bill by voting no on a procedural motion that would have brought the bill to a full vote.

  1. Healthcare access for undocumented immigrantsO’Malley’s immigration plan includes allowing undocumented immigrants to enroll in Obamacare, and Lopez asked Hillary Clinton if she also supports this position. Clinton said she supports “the opportunity for immigrants to be able to buy in to the exchanges under the Affordable Care Act” but stated it raises many issues and concerns because it would be difficult to administer. Clinton went on to pivot back to comprehensive immigration reform as a solution.

    When Webb was asked to address the question, he simply stated “I wouldn’t have a problem with that.”

  2. Increasing educational opportunities for young undocumented immigrantsBoth Sanders and O’Malley have publicly supported policies that allow undocumented students to pay the same in-state college tuition rates as other students. When Clinton was asked on her stance, she said: “My plan would support any state that takes that position, and would work with those states and encourage more states to do the same thing… if their states agree.” However, the details of how she would do this have yet to be unveiled.

    O’Malley, who signed the Maryland DREAM Act and strongly defended the law when it was put in limbo after Maryland’s Republican lawmakers successfully petitioned for a statewide referendum on the issue, also added that “the more our children learn, the more they will earn, and that’s true of children who have yet to be naturalized but will become American citizens.”

  3. Upholding and expanding executive action on immigrationBoth O’Malley and Clinton took a firm stance on expanding President Obama’s executive action on immigration, though they did not provide any insight into what this would entail. O’Malley said that the country is strengthened by immigrants, and that Americans “need to understand that our country is stronger in every generation by the arrival of new American immigrants… I would go further than President Obama has on DACA, and DAPA.”

    Clinton also said that after meeting with DREAMers, undocumented young people brought to the United States as children, she felt compelled to support policies that “…would go further than even the executive orders that President Obama has signed when I’m president.”

The Democratic debate was a stark contrast from the positions outlined by the Republican candidates at their first primary debate in August, which primarily focused on more enforcement mechanisms and ramped-up border security. As the debate season continues, hopefully we will hear more on their views about pressing immigration issues, including whether they will end family detention, how they will instill more grace and discretion in an overly punitive enforcement system and how they, unlike their predecessors, will actually get Congress to reform immigration.

Photo Courtesy of CNN.

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