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Dem Candidates All Support Healthcare for Undocumented People, Split on Decriminalizing Immigration

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Image Credit: NBC News

Immigration was among the top issues in the second night of the first Democratic presidential debates, with California Senator Kamala Harris saying she would reinstate Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that provides a temporary work permit and deportation relief for undocumented youth, on her first day in office. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg spoke of the criminalization of immigration as the basis for family separation, referring to the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance “policy as “dead wrong.” While most candidates are running on different platforms to address the criminalization of immigration and the separation of refugee families at the border, they all agreed on one thing: providing healthcare to undocumented people living in the U.S. When asked if they agreed, all candidates raised their hand. Prior to the debate night, many of the candidates, including Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, visited the Homestead detention facility, where hundreds of migrant children are currently incarcerated, located just a few minutes from Miami. We speak with Andrea Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to go back to the Democratic presidential primary debate Thursday night, when NBC anchor Savannah Guthrie asked candidates if their government healthcare plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants. They all raised their hands.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Raise your hand if your government plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants. OK, let me start with you, Mayor Buttigieg. Why? Mayor Buttigieg, why?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: Because our country is healthier when everybody is healthier. And remember, we’re talking about something people are given a chance to buy into, in the same way that there are undocumented immigrants in my community who pay—they pay sales taxes, they pay property taxes, directly or indirectly. This is not about a handout. This is an insurance program. And we do ourselves no favors by having 11 million undocumented people in our country be unable to access healthcare.

But, of course, the real problem is we shouldn’t have 11 million undocumented people with no pathway to citizenship. It makes no sense. And the American people—the American people agree on what to do. This is the crazy thing. If leadership consists of forming a consensus around a divisive issue, this White House has divided us around a consensus issue. The American people want a pathway to citizenship. They want protections for DREAMers. We need to clean up the lawful immigration system, like how my father immigrated to this country. And as part of a compromise, we can do whatever commonsense measures are needed at the border.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Mayor.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: But Washington can’t deliver on something the American people want. What does that tell you about the system we’re living in? It tells you it needs profound structural reform.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Mayor, thank you. Vice President Biden, I believe you said that your healthcare plan would not cover undocumented immigrants. Could you explain your position?

JOE BIDEN: I’m sorry, beg your pardon? I didn’t hear.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: I believe at the show of hands you did not raise your hand. Did you raise your hand?

JOE BIDEN: Oh, no, I did. I—

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: OK. Sorry, sorry. So you said that they would be covered under your plan—

JOE BIDEN: Yes.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: —which is different than Obamacare.

JOE BIDEN: Yes, but here’s the thing.

SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: Can you explain that change?

JOE BIDEN: Yes. You cannot let—as the mayor said, you cannot let people who are sick, no matter where they come from, no matter what their status, go uncovered. You can’t do that. It’s just going to be taken care of, period. You have to. It’s the humane thing to do.

But here’s the deal. The deal is that he’s right about three things. Number one, they, in fact, contribute to the well-being of the country, but they also, for example, they’ve increased the lifespan of Social Security, because they have a job, they’re paying a Social Security tax. That’s what they’re doing. It’s increased the lifespan. They would do the same thing in terms of reducing the overall cost of healthcare by them being able to be treated and not wait 'til they're in extremis.

The other thing is, folks, look, we can deal with these insurance companies. We can deal with the insurance companies by, number one, putting insurance executives in jail for their misleading—their misleading advertising, what they’re doing on opioids, what they’re doing paying doctors to prescribe. We should—we could be doing this by making sure everyone who is on Medicare, that the government should be able to negotiate the price for whatever the drug costs are. We can do this by making sure that we’re in a position that we in fact allow people—you mean time’s up?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Joe Biden. For more, we go to Miami, where we’re joined by Andrea Mercado, executive director of the New Florida Majority, her recent op-ed in The New York Times headlined “Democrats Can Win Florida in 2020.”

Talk about what was and was not raised in these two nights of debates, Andrea, you whose organization is part of a number of organizations that were responsible, for example, for bringing a number of these candidates less than, what, an hour away, to Homestead, where the Caliburn detention facility is, where more than 2,000 children, migrant children, are incarcerated. Among those who went there was Bernie Sanders, was Kamala Harris, was Senator Warren, was Eric Swalwell—not Kamala Harris, but Amy Klobuchar.

ANDREA MERCADO: Yeah, absolutely. I think there was a lot of discourse on immigration the past two nights, and a real conversation around decriminalizing our immigration system. It’s a conversation that many of us who have been in the immigrant rights movement couldn’t have imagined presidential candidates really engaging in a few years ago. And so, I think it’s heartening to see that.

And at the same time, we see this back and forth between Senator Harris and Biden, with Senator Harris pointing to Secure Communities and the need for victims of crime to be able to reach out to police when they need help and not to fear their deportation, and, you know, Senator Biden—and really pushing Senator Biden on the Obama administration’s record of the deportations that we saw under that administration. And just like he needs to answer to the '94 crime bill, they also have to talk about the deportation of immigrants under that administration and how we're going to advance forward as a country at this moment where we’re witnessing unspeakable horrors at the border with the incarceration of children in Homestead, just a few miles away.

But I would say one of the—you know, two of the topics that really weren’t discussed in the last two nights’ debates, we did not see much attention to climate change. We didn’t see a real robust conversation about what we need to do to protect this planet for future generations. You know, here in Florida, we’re ground zero for some of the impacts of climate change in the United States. We have over 10,000 people in the Panhandle that has been devastated by Hurricane Michael, and 10,000 people who are homeless, just like we have over 3,000 people in Puerto Rico who died because of the negligence of the Trump administration. So, I think we need to see candidates having a much more substantive conversation about climate change.

AMY GOODMAN: On the issue of immigration and providing healthcare to undocumented immigrants, President Trump has already tweeted, even though he’s in Japan now, oh, the G20, “All Democrats just raised their hands for giving millions of illegal aliens unlimited healthcare. How about taking care of American Citizens first!? That’s the end of that race!” exclamation point. Andrea?

ANDREA MERCADO: That is the Trump playbook. I mean, he and the Republican Party invest millions of dollars in deporting immigrants and scapegoating immigrants for economic insecurity and the fact that, you know, our families are struggling to make ends meet and survive in working-class communities across this nation. And, you know, they’re trying to confuse us and distract us from the fact that all of the policies that this administration are promoting and that Republicans are passing are to benefit the richest Americans, the top 1%, the biggest corporations, and do irrevocable harm to our democracy and well-being.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of Florida as a swing state?

ANDREA MERCADO: I mean, it’s clear that the path to the White House goes through Florida. No Republican has won the White House without winning Florida since—I don’t know—the 1920s. And, you know, the Republicans are really investing heavily here in doing—building out their infrastructure. They’ve been winning elections in Florida by less than half a percent, half a percent in a state with 22 million people.

And, you know, to win in Florida, we really need the Democratic Party to show up and to engage their base—the African Americans, their most loyal voters and the heart of the Democratic Party, as well as Latinos, whose votes are critical in this state. And, you know, we need to see that engagement early and often. And we need candidates not to be complacent about just standing against Trump. I think that was a real misstep that Biden made last night. We need candidates that actually are going to speak to the issues that our families face.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Thursday night’s Democratic debate to the exchange between Vice President Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders on the issue of Iraq. It begins with moderator Rachel Maddow.

RACHEL MADDOW: You have made your decades of experience in foreign policy a pillar of your campaign, but when the time came to say yes or no on one of the most consequential foreign policy decisions of the last century, you voted for the Iraq War. You have since said you regret that vote. But why should voters trust your judgment when it comes to making a decision about taking the country to war the next time?

JOE BIDEN: Because once we—once Bush abused that power, what happened was, we got elected after that. I made sure—the president turned to me and said, “Joe, get our combat troops out of Iraq.” I was responsible for getting 150,000 combat troops out of Iraq, and my son was one of them. I also think we should not have combat troops in Afghanistan. It’s long overdue. It should end.

And thirdly, I believe that you’re not going to find anybody who has pulled together more of our alliances to deal with what is the real stateless threat out there. We cannot go it alone in terms of dealing with terrorism. So I would eliminate the act that allowed us to go into war, and not—the AUMF, and make sure that it could only be used for what its intent was, and that is to go after terrorists, but never do it alone. That’s why we have to repair our alliances. We put together 65 countries to make sure we dealt with ISIS in Iraq and other places. That’s what I would do. That’s what I have done. And I know how to do it.

RACHEL MADDOW: Senator Sanders, 30 seconds.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Look, one of the differences—one of the differences that Joe and I have in our record is Joe voted for that war, I helped lead the opposition to that war, which was a total disaster. Second of all, I helped lead the effort for the first time to utilize the War Powers Act to get the United States out of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen, which is the most horrific humanitarian disaster on Earth. And thirdly, let me be very clear: I will do everything I can to prevent a war with Iran, which would be far worse than disastrous war with Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s interesting that you have Bernie Sanders also not only raising the issue of Iraq, but of Yemen, and this debate was on NBC and MSNBC, because FAIR noted, in 2018—they said, “In the year 2017, MSNBC ran only one segment that focused on the US’s role in Yemen; zero in the second half of the year. In 2018 so far,” they wrote, ”MSNBC hasn’t run a single segment on Yemen, much less the US’s role in it.” But, Rashad Robinson, the significance of the Biden-Bernie Sanders sparring around the issue of war?

RASHAD ROBINSON: I think it was really important. I think that this is why we have debates, that people need to get clear about sort of where folks stand. You know, back in '08, Hillary Clinton's support of that war and inability to sort of talk about it was one of the things that really helped Obama catapult to top-tier status, especially among progressive folks.

This goes back to what I was saying earlier, is that we need to understand what Biden has learned during his decades of service, how he has changed. What made a politician someone that we might vote for in the '90s, what made a politician someone that a young black person might vote for in the early 2000s, is very different than today. And he's going to have to walk us through sort of what he’s learned while being in office and how he’s changed. And, unfortunately, he didn’t really answer that question.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go very quickly to South Bend, Indiana. This is Rachel Maddow questioning South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg about the police shooting of Eric Logan, a black man, last month. Buttigieg is then interrupted. This—here we go.

RACHEL MADDOW: Mayor Buttigieg, in the last five years, civil rights activists in our country have led a national debate over race and the criminal justice system. Your community of South Bend, Indiana, has recently been in uproar over an officer-involved shooting. The police force in South Bend is now 6% black, in a city that is 26% black. Why has that not improved over your two terms as mayor?

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: Because I couldn’t get it done. My community is in anguish right now because of an officer-involved shooting, a black man, Eric Logan, killed by a white officer. And I’m not allowed to take sides until the investigation comes back. The officer said he was attacked with a knife, but he didn’t have his body camera on.

AMY GOODMAN: There is Pete Buttigieg, and he went on from there. Rashad Robinson?

RASHAD ROBINSON: You know, he said he couldn’t get the job done. So, the question is, is: Why are you running for president? I’m looking forward to sitting down and hearing that from him. But the question really is, is that in South Bend, Indiana, right now, the black community is hurting. They want their mayor to stand up and figure out how he’s going to make safety and justice a reality.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to end with Pete Buttigieg’s closing comment. This is Pete Buttigieg’s closing comment last night. Well, I don’t think we have it in SOT. Here we go.

MAYOR PETE BUTTIGIEG: I’ve had the experience of writing a letter to my family, putting it in an envelope marked “just in case,” and leaving it where they would know where to find it, in case I didn’t come back from Afghanistan. I have the experience of being in a marriage that exists by the grace of a single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court.

AMY GOODMAN: “A single vote on the U.S. Supreme Court.” Rashad, we’re just about to go into the 50th anniversary of Stonewall documentary. This is the day, 1:30 after midnight tonight. You are a well-known LGBTQ activist. There will be millions of people on the streets in New York here.

RASHAD ROBINSON: Yeah. I think those were powerful words from Mayor Pete. I mean, him being on the stage is a representation of progress. As a leader of a national black civil rights organization, I know that I sit on the shoulders of folks like Marsha P. Johnson, who threw that first stone, folks like Bayard Rustin, folks like Audre Lorde and so many other black gay people who were proud, unapologetic, and demanded that this country live up to everything that it could possibly be.

I hope that we celebrate Stonewall, but I also hope we celebrate what’s under it. And that’s that every single day, in order to make our country whole, in order to make justice and democracy real, we have to translate the presence of these issues into the power to change the rules, to make everyday people heard, counted and visible.

AMY GOODMAN: Rashad Robinson, I want to thank you for being with us, president of Color of Change, and Andrea Mercado from Miami, executive director of the New Florida Majority. We’ll be back in 20 seconds.

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