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Biden-Trump Debate: Silky Shah on How Both Candidates Scapegoat Immigrants, Promote Xenophobic Myths

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Thursday’s CNN debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump was “a really, really rough night for those who are fighting for immigrant rights,” says Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network. “Trump repeatedly was stoking a moral panic on immigration, and Biden had very little in response.” Both candidates boasted about restricting immigration and militarizing the border, while casting immigrants as dangerous and violent. Their rhetoric was reflective of an increasing anti-immigration shift in both parties, “stoking a crime panic” that is “really terrifying to see,” says Shah.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

The first 2024 presidential debate between President Biden and former President Trump held Thursday night, marking the first time a sitting president debated of former one. One of the major issues was abortion. We’re going to start with President Trump — was immigration, sorry. We’re going to start with President Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: I didn’t have legislation. I said, “Close the border.” We had the safest border in history. In that final couple of months of my presidency, we had, according to Border Patrol, who is great — and, by the way, who endorsed me for president. But I won’t say that. But they endorsed me for president. Brandon, just speak to him.

But, look, we had the safest border in history. Now we have the worst border in history. There’s never been anything like it. And people are dying all over the place, including the people that are coming up in caravans.

JAKE TAPPER: Thank you, President Trump. President Biden?

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The only terrorist who has done anything crossing the border is one who came along and killed three — under his administration — killed — an al-Qaeda person, coming in his administration, killed three American soldiers. Killed three American soldiers. That’s the only terrorist that’s there.

I’m not saying that no terrorist ever got through. But the idea they’re emptying their prisons, we’re welcoming these people, that’s simply not true. There’s no data to support what he said. Once again, he’s exaggerating. He’s lying.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by Silky Shah, executive director of Detention Watch Network, author of the new book, Unbuild Walls: Why Immigrant Justice Needs Abolition. Her new piece for The Nation headlined “With His Immigration Policy, Biden Capitulates to the Right’s Racist Agenda.” She’s joining us from Washington state.

Silky, if you can respond to both Trump and Biden talking about immigration last night?

SILKY SHAH: Yes. You know, I think it was a really, really rough night for those who are fighting for immigrant rights, for immigrant justice. Biden and — well, Trump repeatedly was stoking a moral panic on immigration, and Biden had very little in response. And it was really terrifying to see. I mean, Trump at some point even — you know, he was critiquing the Clinton administration for using the term “superpredators,” in reflection on Black youth and communities in the ’90s, but repeatedly Trump called immigrants, you know, really horrible things — murderers and rapists — and constantly saying that across the world people are emptying prisons and sending people to the U.S., and stoking a moral panic. And rather than, you know, responding with moral leadership, Biden just fell into the trap and was responding in ways and saying — at some point even said that there should be a total ban at the border, that he was going to push a total ban, and then sort of corrected himself and said a total initiative at the border.

And so, it was just entirely, in every single way — Trump kept bringing back immigration as an issue and stoking this sort of moral panic, stoking a crime panic, and pushing this. And Biden really had very little in response and, instead, sort of fell into the trap and kept reinforcing the idea that immigration is a public safety issue and that immigrants should be met with law enforcement at the border, instead of aid, and not really debunking this idea that it’s a public safety issue and showing some moral leadership in some way.

AMY GOODMAN: And Trump’s comments, “Every state is a border now”?

SILKY SHAH: Yeah, no, I mean, I think that was terrifying to hear. What we see across the country is that states are pushing anti-immigrant legislation. We saw this before, years ago, with Arizona passing S.B. 1070, the, quote-unquote, “show me your papers” law, and now we see it under Abbott in Texas with Operation Lone Star and other laws, using the criminal legal system. I mean, the whole conversation kept tying back this idea that the criminal legal system should be used to target immigrants.

And Trump saying, “Every state is a border now,” is sort of signaling to all those states, some 20 states, saying, you know, they should pass their own immigration laws that use the criminal legal system to target immigrants, detain, incarcerate, you know, have them have long sentences in prison before being deported. And that was what I was hearing being signaled with that.

AMY GOODMAN: And the false trope about immigrant crime rate, and what it really is, compared to the general population — of course, you have Trump repeating this over and over, but then the inexplicable response to abortion that President Biden gave, immediately talking about an immigrant raping a woman?

SILKY SHAH: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in so many ways, politicians repeatedly use moral panics and crime panics to gain political points, to, you know, do everything they can to win elections. And this is what we’re seeing again. This is what we’ve seen time and again, and especially what we saw in the ’90s, where we saw the rise in mass incarceration.

And it’s remarkable, because just a few years ago, we had millions of people on the streets calling to defund the police, really understanding the inherent racism of our criminal legal system, of mass incarceration, of racist policing, and millions of people on the streets calling for the end to mass deportations, an end to family separations that we see. And now we’re at this place where both candidates are repeatedly using a moral panic and pushing more state power and systemic repression at the border and in communities across the country. ICE is planning to build new detention centers. It’s really terrifying to see.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Silky Shah, we want to thank you for being with us. It was also the lack of fact-checking by the moderators when this repeated trope of immigrants commit crimes, when the fact is, in the general population, the crime rate is much higher than in the immigrant population. Silky Shah, executive director of the Detention Watch Network, author of Unbuild Walls: Why Immigrant Justice Needs Abolition.

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