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League Of United Latin American Citizens Holds Presidential Contenders Town Hall


The nation's oldest Latino civil rights organization had a look at some presidential candidates last night. Candidates like Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren were explaining what they'd do if they win the presidency. They spoke as the Trump administration prepares immigration raids this weekend and many migrants are in detention at the border.

NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben was listening as the candidates spoke with the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, in Milwaukee. Good morning.


INSKEEP: I guess we should mention the candidates were already speaking Spanish in debates for mainstream audiences, so what are they adding in this kind of setting?

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, you did have some Spanish again last night. Beto O'Rourke is here. He speaks Spanish pretty well. But yes, on top of that, you know, candidates did bring their usual slate of policies. You had Bernie Sanders from Vermont. He spoke about economic inequality. Elizabeth Warren also talked about reshaping the American economy. She talked about her personal story.

But yeah, they talked about immigration against that backdrop that you mentioned. There are also some immigrants in the audience here. There was also that backdrop of that census question about immigration. So yeah, there were a lot of questions about immigration.

So with that in mind, Warren in the run-up to this - Elizabeth Warren - unveiled her immigration plan. Julian Castro, who has made immigration one of the centers of his campaign - he really made a point of leaning into decriminalizing border crossings. That's a topic that he came out early on. And he criticized more moderate Democrats on that question. Here he was criticizing them last night.


JULIAN CASTRO: I would say that Secretary Johnson is wrong, Vice President Biden is wrong on this, and Congressman O'Rourke is wrong on this.

INSKEEP: OK, so a difference of how to shape the law, should one of them become president. When Castro put out that immigration plan, people pointed out he was the first to be detailed about what he would do as president. Has anybody else been detailed since?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, Elizabeth Warren has. And being detailed on policy - she has sort of made that her identity. She unveiled that plan this week. She said that she wants to decriminalize border crossing, as well. But on top of that, she wants more legal immigration. She wants to bring in more refugees, and she wants agencies like ICE to really focus on different priorities, to focus more on areas like smuggling, for example.

And she did a thing that a lot of the candidates here are doing and a lot of the candidates in this race are doing generally, which is try to differentiate themselves from each other, but also to make sure it's not all about Trump. Here she was sort of summing it up to the audience.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Now, our immigration system is broken. And I get that Donald Trump goes out there every single day and tries to exploit that for his political ends. But we all know in this room - it was broken long before Donald Trump came along.

KURTZLEBEN: And aside from that, you had Beto O'Rourke here. He also has brought out his own pretty detailed immigration plan. He wants to rewrite the law to decriminalize border - crossing the border for some, but definitely not all people. He also has a pathway to citizenship, and he really wants to invest in the asylum system and deal with some of those backlogs.

INSKEEP: It's clear that the president thinks immigration is a strong issue for motivating his base voters. It's a thing he wants to talk about. Do Democrats essentially agree - say, yes, this is the thing we want to be central to our campaigns?

KURTZLEBEN: You know, you've really seen this increase among Democrats - that's what's interesting - in part just because so many are so angry about Trump-era policies like family separation and that sort of thing. So you really see a lot of firing up there. But there's a risk in that Trump and other Republicans are definitely going to frame some of their policies as open border, which really could upset some swing voters, perhaps.

INSKEEP: Danielle Kurtzleben, thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.