Why are most Democrats not confronting Trump on immigration?

Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Globe file photos
Photo illustration by Lesley Becker/Globe Staff; Globe file photos
Julián Castro is the only Democratic presidential candidate who has a sweeping platform on immigration.

There are 20 candidates running for the Democratic nomination for president, with former vice president Joe Biden the latest to officially launch a bid. Already he’s in the lead — at least in New Hampshire, where the first primary in the nation will take place, in roughly 40 weeks. A new Suffolk University/Boston Globe poll shows Biden with support from 20 percent of likely voters, Senator Bernie Sanders with 12 percent, and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg following closely with just under 12 percent.

Notwithstanding the latest poll results, it’s clear that Democrats want, above all, someone who can beat President Trump. But how do they decide who is the most likely to prevail over Trump, the most divisive and unstable figure in American politics?

Candidates have tried to make their case to voters. Yet one critical theme has been missing from the crowded field.


Beyond tired, broad strokes, no coherent ideas on immigration policy have been proposed — except by a single candidate. At a time when immigration is the issue that Trump is capitalizing on — day in and day out, in rallies and on Twitter, threatening to close the border and pushing the limits of his own power by attempting to stop Central American asylum seekers from finding refuge here — there is still no major counterpoint to him from liberals.

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It is one of the great weaknesses of the Democratic Party. Only Julián Castro, a former San Antonio mayor and US secretary of housing and urban development, has developed a sweeping platform on immigration. The rest of the field has not offered a meaningful alternative to Trump’s immigration agenda of nationalism, populism, and sheer exploitation and criminalization of immigrants and Latinos.

As a result, Trump effectively owns immigration.

Castro has challenged that, and raised awareness around other major Hispanic issues. The only Latino in the race, he chose Puerto Rico for his first destination as presidential candidate, to highlight Trump’s dismal response to the island after Hurricane Maria brought it to its knees.

He has also presented a bold immigration proposal that is as detailed as it is far-reaching. It includes expanding protections to so-called Dreamers and their parents, and those with temporary protected status, as well as reversing Trump policies like the travel ban and the limits to refugee resettlement. But it goes further: Castro would create a ‘‘21st Century Marshall Plan’’ for Central America to tackle the root causes of migration. The proposal would dramatically restructure US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, distributing some of the agency’s functions to other federal agencies; close most immigration detention facilities; and remove immigration courts from the US Attorney General’s authority.


Castro would also get rid of the law that makes it a crime to cross the border illegally. “A lot of people still remember that up until about 2004, we considered crossing the border a civil violation and not a criminal one,” he told me in an interview. “People know that this is a reasonable proposal, and they understand that we don’t need to treat people who are seeking a better life as criminals.”

And yet, Castro’s message has not been resonating much in New Hampshire. Instead, three white males are leading the field among Democrats in one of the whitest states. Castro got less than 1 percent in the Suffolk University/Globe poll. Sure, it’s early, and it’s no secret that New Hampshire isn’t representative of the country as a whole in terms of its demographics. (For this reason, polling experts have for years called for getting rid of its first-in-the-nation status.) When Castro visited Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics in January, I could find only one Latino in the audience, and he was from Boston.

It’s emblematic of the missing piece in the Democratic Party: Here comes a dynamic, prominent, and experienced Latino, but the party has not figured out how to harness the energy emanating from this population, which is getting vilified by Republicans on a daily basis.

To be clear, Latinos are not a monolithic group, but this voting bloc already showed results for Democrats in 2018. According to a new report, the Latino vote was essential in making 2018 statewide elections competitive in Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Texas. Without Hispanics in those states, the GOP would have won big. In 2020, Latinos will be the largest racial/ethnic minority group eligible to vote, with 32 million Hispanics.

If Democrats care about beating Trump, they have to be as fearless about confronting him on immigration as Castro has. It’s not enough regularly to denounce his cruel policies of family separation and limiting asylum. Democrats have to offer a clear counterpoint.

Marcela García is a Globe editorial writer. She can be reached at marcela.garcia@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.