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Kimberly Moffitt and Lester Spence analyze the importance of what was said and not said in the first Democratic Debate

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MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. We’re going to continue a conversation here about what happened last night in the debate between Democratic candidates. We’re going to focus on issues like immigration and others that came to the fore in this debate. We are joined still by Dr. Kimberly Moffitt, who is Associate Professor and Chair of Language, Literacy, & Culture at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County and her latest book is Michelle Obama and the FLOTUS Effect. And we’re joined by Dr. Lester Spence, Professor of Political Studies and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His latest book is Knocking the Hustle. And I might say, they’ve been colleagues for a long time. It’s good to have them both in the studio here at The Real News. Let’s pick up with immigration, which I think was some of the more emotional and powerful moments in this conversation— this, what they call a debate, whatever they’re calling this thing they had last night with 47 candidates. But let’s watch this clip about immigration that kicks off this conversation.

JULIAN CASTRO If I were president today, I would sign an executive order that would get rid of Trump’s zero-tolerance policy, the “remain in Mexico” policy, and the metering policy. My plan also includes getting rid of rid of Section 1325 of the Immigration and Nationality Act to go back to the way we used to treat this when somebody comes across the border, not to criminalize desperation, to treat that as a civil violation. [crowd applauds] And here’s why it’s important. We see all of this horrendous family separation. They use that law, Section 1325, to justify under the law separating little children from their families and so I want to challenge every single candidate on this stage to support the repeal of Section 1325. [crowd cheers]

JOSE DIAZ-BALART Thirty seconds.

SENTAOR CORY BOOKER The separation of children from families doesn’t just go on at our border. It happens in our communities as ICE are ripping away parents from their American children, spouses and the like, and are creating fear in cities all across this country where parents are afraid to even drop their kids off to school or go to work. We must end those policies, as well.


MAYOR BILL DE BLASIO We have to change the discussion about immigration in this country because look at the bottom line here. Those tragic — that tragic photo of those — that parent, that child—And I’m saying this as a father. Every American should feel that in their heart and every American should say that is not America, those are not our values, but we have to get under the skin of why we have this crisis in our system because we’re not being honest about the division that’s been fomented in this country. The way that American citizens have been told that immigrants somehow created their misery and their pain and their challenges, for all the American citizens out there who feel you’re falling behind, who feel the American dream is not working for you, the immigrants didn’t do that to you. The big corporations did that to you. [crowd cheers].

MARC STEINER So this was interesting to me on a number of levels. One, was the 1325 piece and decriminalizing people who come across the border and the way these candidates are tackling immigration. So let’s talk one at a time here before we hit this next clip. This is something, I think, is fairly new in this debate that I have not really— maybe I haven’t paid attention enough or I think I have— that 1325, the idea that we should not criminalize people coming across the border. We have to handle this in a different way. This is something profoundly new in this conversation and you saw what the other candidates were saying— some of them anyway— and how does this play with the United States, how does this play with Americans? This is a dividing issue and they really took some interesting, kind of, radical stances here. What are your thoughts? Kimberly, you want to roll?

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Sure. So Castro’s tidbit where he said we shouldn’t be criminalizing desperation, I think, is a key element to this type of conversation. But it also speaks against where we have moved as a nation, where we have criminalized most things in our society because it is a profit on the other end to criminalize behavior. And so, when we look at the industries that have proliferated in particular since the 80s, to criminalize any and everything because there is a financial benefit on the other end to corporations, it only makes sense that we continue doing this. Immigration just happens to be the newest of those inventions that we need to criminalize. And so, we’ve got corporations who are now financially benefiting from all of these immigrants, or these attempts of immigrants to come into the country, right? Well, there is money to be made from it, so even though they are trying to, weather just to become citizens or asylum seekers or even trying to get here legally, there is a profit on the other end for a corporation to benefit from. So we’ve got so many individuals, so many corporations, who are profiting from such an experience that I only see us moving in that direction continuously. I don’t see us moving back from that, but I think what Castro is trying to convey to us is these are issues that we do need to be looking at in a different way.


DR. LESTER SPENCE So since the passage of NAFTA— and we can go back further— but the passage of NAFTA in the mid 90s, we’ve seen a set of policies that really allow and enable capital to move across borders, and economic elites to move across borders. So for example, I went out of the country last week and because I didn’t have global entry, you know, getting through the different borders was kind of difficult, but if you have global entry— which you have to have a certain background for, which you have to apply for— it makes it smoother. So we’ve got policies in place to make it smoother for elites and for corporations to move, but we don’t have the same type of policies in place for labor. And it’s interesting because there was, up until recently, the left has had, kind of, an internationalist mandate where it wasn’t really about borders as much. What you see in the debate was a little bit of movement towards that, but nobody explicitly, nobody explicitly, made the connections.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Well, it seemed like folks were more interested in the human-interest side of immigration and not talking about policy. Castro was the one that was willing to at least raise Section 1325 and asking candidates to consider moving in the direction of eliminating that from the act. But otherwise, it was all—I mean, I think the beginning of the immigration discussion was all over the father and daughter who died trying to cross the Rio Grande into the country. And so, it’s very much taken a human face and focusing on that side and how can we as a nation do this to other human beings, more so than dealing with the policy issue right now.

MARC STEINER I think you really hit on a really important point because I think that both of you just hit really key points. I never thought about the point about comparing stopping human beings coming across the border and not stopping capital from coming across the border. It’s a really important political point. And I think what you were just saying, Kimberly, is really critical as well, which is I think what’s moving people right now and was part of this debate— the picture of that little girl Valeria and her father in the water facedown, her arm around his neck. It was just—I mean, all of us are parents here and it was just, I just couldn’t. It just broke my heart and I think it broke America’s heart, in large part. And then, just before that was a report from Columbia University’s immigration group, law school, that went into the facilities and saw there’s no soap, there’s no water, no beds, living in dirty, filthy clothing covered with feces, and everything else— and these things are, kind of, grabbing us. And then, Ocasio-Cortez’s push using the word “concentration camp” has, kind of, really emotionalized this thing and I think sometimes you don’t get political change until you emotionalize something. You know? I mean, that’s what, kind of, pushes people, what broke the back of segregation in the South when these emotional moments happened, to begin to shift the country, right? That’s what we saw here. Let’s watch this clip. This is a back and forth between Beto O’Rourke and Julian Castro.

JULIAN CASTRO Let’s be very clear, the reason that they’re separating these little children from their families is that they’re using Section 1325 of that Act, which criminalizes coming across the border to incarcerate the parents and then separate them. Some of us on this stage have called to end that section, to terminate it. Some, like Congressman O’Rourke, have not and I want to challenge all of the candidates to do that. [crowd applauds] I just think it’s a mistake. I think it’s a mistake and I think that if you truly want to change the system, then we got to repeal that section. If not, then it might as well be the same policy.

BETO O’ROURKE But you’re looking at just one small part of this.

JULIAN CASTRO That’s not true.

BETO O’ROURKE I’m talking about a comprehensive rewrite of our immigration laws. And if we do that, I don’t think it’s asking too much for people to follow our laws when they come to this country.

JULIAN CASTRO That’s actually not true. I’m talking about millions of folks. A lot of folks that are coming are not seeking asylum. A lot of them are undocumented immigrants, right? And you said recently, that the reason you didn’t want to repeal Section 1325 was because you were concerned about human trafficking and drug trafficking. But let me tell you what, Title 18 of the US code, Title 21, and Title 22 already cover human trafficking. I think you should do your homework on this issue. If you did your homework on this issue, instead of talking about division, you would know that we should repeal this section—[crosstalk]

BETO O’ROURKE If this is a known smuggler or drug trafficker, we’re going to ensure that they are deported—

MARC STEINER Well, I’m only laughing because Beto seemed to really, kind of, tank on this question, among other things. It was, kind of, shocking to watch, but what Julian Castro was saying was I think really important. And I think that I see this whole issue as becoming something that could be key to the election in 2020. This question of immigration and how we approach it, it can be really key. It would divide and also, kind of, unite.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Well, I mean, we saw it in the last election that it started getting tremendous momentum and Trump in particular was able to capitalize off of those particular moments. And he continues to do so as we keep having conversations about the wall, having conversations about what are some of the images and lived experiences of individuals who are in these holding spaces that some have referred to as concentration camps, so I think it will be a major topic in the election in 2020. And again, the Democratic Party has to figure out where it situates itself in order to be able to move it forward.

MARC STEINER Right. Right. Right.

DR. LESTER SPENCE And one way to think about this, I think the element where we’re going to see this play out the most electorally, it probably is not going to be the presidential election where it is going to be important. It’s going to be in all those local elections. It’s going to be those elections for Senate. It’s going to be those elections for, to the extent that you get competition for congressional seats. You’re going to see it there and then I don’t know how many governorships are up, but you’ll see it there too. Because I can easily imagine the Right creating, kind of, Willie Horton-esque— you know, I’m aging myself— going back to 88 in this case, Willie Horton-esque racist campaign ads. Like, this is what he supports, this is what she supports, and in campaign ads of Mexican criminals etc. coming back. And the question will be, what will be interesting to see is, is the Democratic Party willing to do— it’s not the same thing because it’s not symmetric— but are they willing to say, “listen, these are concentration camps. This is what they supported. Are you going to vote for this?” It’ll be interesting to see, so I think what you’re seeing is people actually making this or candidates making this a campaign issue, alongside of Trump trying to make it one from the other side.

MARC STEINER And we saw Julian Castro in part of this debate discussion last night also saying that we need a Marshall Plan for Central America. That’s the only way to stop immigration, which I thought was a really interesting thing. Nobody’s raised that as a real political question, as well.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT And it’s interesting because even though I think he came across as a bit unwieldy and not very focused yet passionate, was the comment that de Blasio made where he said, you know, we need as Americans to stop blaming immigrants and saying that immigrants are doing this to you when in fact, it’s the big corporations and the 1% who have done this to you. Those are the folks that we need to be looking to.

MARC STEINER It’s been a couple of really emotional statements he said. Some people, I read, don’t like him because he’s a New Yorker and over the top they think [laughs], but when he talked about his black son and what he faces and violence in New York City— to Booker talking about living in a working-class black community. I think these didn’t get explored in depth, but the fact that they both brought these up are really important, I think.

DR. LESTER SPENCE Yeah. It’s a new moment.

MARC STEINER Yeah. It is a new moment that it even came up. Let’s talk about climate change for a minute, so—

DR. LESTER SPENCE A minute. [laughs] That’s the problem, right? That’s the problem.

MARC STEINER Yeah because that’s what they gave it, right?

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Well actually, seven, but seven out of a two-hour debate says a lot. Yes.

MARC STEINER And Inslee was really good on that. I thought he was pretty powerful. The Governor of Washington.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Well, and I would expect him to be the voice that was pushing this issue and pushing it forward. And it’s interesting that as soon as he said climate change, it seemed that everyone wanted to include climate change as, kind of, this foremost issue that they felt like they needed to pay attention to. But I do think he probably handled discussing those issues the best because it’s important to him and it is very much a part of his platform as governor.

MARC STEINER Right, but he also pushed, I think, how the jobs would get created and he put a number of eight million out there. I think it was the number he put out.

DR. LESTER SPENCE Yeah. This is a strategic—So, the individuals in the debates had their own agendas. But I wish there was some way to actually have at least—Because they’re not just competing against each other. They are—We are trying to create, kind of, a new common sense. So to that extent, they are competing against the current common sense. So every issue that we talked about or that they talked about— like I’m a damn candidate [panel laughs]— every issue that they talked about, you could connect directly to climate change. You started off with health. Health is directly attached to climate change. We’re in Baltimore. It was—what? 90 degrees yesterday. It was 98 degrees yesterday in Berlin. Heat stroke increases during those—

MARC STEINER Berlin, Germany you’re talking about?

DR. LESTER SPENCE Yes. Berlin, Germany. 98 in Berlin, Germany? You talk about immigration reform. A lot of that stuff is a matter of climate change actually creating and enhancing the political and economic dynamics that exacerbate inequalities. Every single issue they talked about, corporate consolidate—It all goes back to climate change, so the idea that they would, kind of, segment it to like a seven-minute thing, is deeply problematic not just for the debate itself, but for where we are as a nation.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Yeah, but if you are currently being led by a nation that says climate change doesn’t exist, then the rhetoric that is being conveyed to us is just one of many issues and not a primary issue. And I think that’s part of the reason. I mean, that’s not to justify it, but—

DR. LESTER SPENCE No. You’re absolutely right. Yeah.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT And that’s why we see this notion of it being one of many issues that we need to discuss, but it is not the issue.

DR. LESTER SPENCE Yes. So imagine what could have happened if one of the candidates would have actually said, like, wait a second. Why are you only spending seven minutes on this? Like, this is something that connects to everything, right? Now, granted and actually, you know, we don’t know what’s going to happen tonight. It’ll be interesting, but thinking about this as a way to change not just the Democratic Party, not just who comes out for president, but in the way to change the world. It’s like we have to figure out a way to actually create an overarching narrative that generates a common sense. And they’re doing it— to be fair— they’re doing it in a number of issues. Like the idea of people talking about immigration the way they’ve been talking about it, the way they talked about going after corporations— these are all new things. But we actually need a larger, to the extent that the rhetoric matters, and I believe it does. We need a larger frame to connect all this stuff. Climate change is the thing that does it and it’s right. I mean, we should be fighting.

MARC STEINER And I think that the climate change issue could become a centerpiece issue in this campaign coming up in 2020. Democrat or Republican, this is going to be a major issue. I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger as this campaign goes on. It just feels that way.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Only if the Democratic Party makes it an issue.

MARC STEINER Right. I agree.

DR. KIMBERLY MOFFITT Because the Republican Party is not going to make it an issue, and it requires the Democrats to define themselves and say, this is a major issue and one of our largest issues, and this is what we’re going to campaign on. Otherwise, it will fall by the wayside.

MARC STEINER So this has been a great discussion and I’ve enjoyed it a great deal. And I think there are a lot of issues coming up that are going to be really critically important coming up in this election. We saw this morning, the Supreme Court decided that gerrymandering was not in the purview of the federal courts, the federal jurisdiction, which is a disaster for voting rights in this country. And people last night talking about Roe v. Wade needs to be a law, not just a judicial decision. Maybe we’re seeing a shift of our political battles away from the courts since they’ve gone further to the Right. And we’re seeing the political battles taking place in the legislature, making laws happen that actually protect our country. It will be interesting to watch. There will be another debate tonight. And Dr. Kimberly Moffitt will be joining us tomorrow for this panel. Unfortunately, Dr. Lester Spence cannot join us for tomorrow’s panel, which is unfortunate, but I’m glad you were here today, Lester. It’s great to have you in the studio, both of you here. And we’re going to leave you—This is not an endorsement, folks. I don’t endorse anybody, but I just thought it was, kind of, cool the way it ended. This is former Mayor of San Antonio, Julian Castro, saying his adieus to a certain person and you can check this out. I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us and be here tomorrow again when we’ll talk about tonight’s debate.

JULIAN CASTRO If I’m elected president, I will work hard every single day so that you and your family can get good health care, your child can get a good education, and you can have good job opportunities— whether you live in a big city or a small town. And on January 20th, 2021, we’ll say “adios” to Donald Trump. [crowd laughs]

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Lester Spenceis an associate professor of political science and Africana studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics. He specializes in the study of black, racial, and urban politics in the wake of the neoliberal turn. An award winning scholar. In 2013, he received the W.E.B. DuBois Distinguished Book Award for his book, Stare in the Darkness: The Limits of Hip-hop and Black Politics. As a teacher in 2009, he received an Excellence in Teaching Award. He can regularly be heard on National Public Radio and the Marc Steiner Show.