Presidential Debate

No One Defended Immigration at the First Presidential Debate

The topic was reduced largely to border crossing numbers, dubious claims about migrant crime, and enforcement bona fides.


Immigration is a top issue for American voters and was widely expected to play a major role in tonight's debate between former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden. In a section devoted to the issue, neither candidate could muster up a positive vision for the country's immigration system, focusing instead on enforcement-heavy rhetoric and neglecting the benefits of immigrants.

Asked about the high number of illegal border crossings under his watch, Biden quickly took a hawkish tone: "By the way, the Border Patrol endorsed me, endorsed my position." He criticized Trump for "separating babies from their mothers" and "putting them in cages" and pointed to efforts to hire more asylum officers. "Now we're in a situation where there's 40 percent fewer people coming across the border illegally," he said, "and I'm going to continue to move until we get to…the total initiative relative to what we're going to do with more Border Patrol and more asylum officers."

Trump chided Biden for deciding "to open up our country to people that are from prisons, people that are from mental institutions, [and] insane asylums," and claimed that "we have the largest number of terrorists coming into our country right now."

"In that final couple months of my presidency, we had—according to the Border Patrol, who is great—and by the way, who endorsed me for president," Trump continued, "we had the safest border in history." Trump dodged a question about the specifics of his mass deportation plan while claiming that "people are coming in and they're killing our citizens at a level that we've never seen." Later, he would claim that migrants were taking "black jobs" and "Hispanic jobs."

Throughout the debate, immigration as a policy area was reduced largely to border crossing numbers, dubious claims about migrant crime, and enforcement bona fides. Neither candidate was willing to offer a coherent account of the economic and social benefits of immigrants, be they asylum seekers or programmers with graduate degrees. Neither was willing to provide a vision for a more humane, progress-oriented immigration system. Neither offered an alternative to the enforcement-dominated status quo.

On the campaign trail, Trump has repeatedly pushed his plans to deport scores of undocumented immigrants, end birthright citizenship, and seal the border. If implemented, these policies would tear apart American families, severely disrupt the country's economy, and dramatically expand the size and scope of the federal government. Biden has spoken about immigrants in kinder ways, and he deserves much credit for his efforts to restore refugee resettlement and increase certain legal pathways at the border, but his stances have hardened in ways that are detrimental to the immigration debate and to immigrants themselves.

It should be easy for a presidential candidate to explicitly name at least a few benefits of immigration. But tonight, immigration was discussed practically only as it relates to border disorder, obscuring the real potential of immigrants to enrich American life and society.