Montana Gov. Steve Bullock warned fellow 2020 Democratic presidential candidates Tuesday that they were “playing into Donald Trump’s hands” on immigration by calling for an end to criminal laws against illegal immigration and offering them free health care.
Mr. Bullock was one of several more moderate Democrats during the party’s second presidential debate who blasted the party’s leading candidates for embracing the call to decriminalize illegal immigration.
“We’ve got 100,000 people showing up at the border right now. If we decriminalize entry, if we give health care to everyone, we’ll have multiples of that,” the governor said.
He was challenging the stance of Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernard Sanders and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who said ending the criminal sanction against illegal immigration is critical to defanging Mr. Trump’s policies.
“The point is not about criminalization. That has given Donald Trump the tool to break families apart,” said Ms. Warren.
CNN devoted about 10 minutes to the issue of illegal immigration Tuesday night — far less than it gave to health care — and barely touched on the complexities of the matter, asking chiefly about some candidates’ push to end the criminal penalties.
Under current law, merely being in the U.S. without permission is a civil offense for which the consequence is removal. But the act of crossing the border without permission is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail. And sneaking back in after deportation is a felony punishable by up to two years.
Usually only about one in five migrants crossing the border illegally has been prosecuted — usually single adults.
Parents who came with children were generally not prosecuted.
During last year’s zero tolerance border policy that changed, and the administration began to bring charges in those cases. The rate of prosecutions rose to about half of all illegal border crossers.
Because there is no space for families in the criminal justice system, once the parents were charged their children were separated from them.
“We need to fix the crisis at the border, and a big part of how we do that is we do not play into Donald Trump’s hands,” Ms. Warren said.
“But you are playing into Donald Trump’s hands,” Mr. Bullock countered.
Mr. Sanders, for his part, objected to having his universal government-run health care plan — “Medicare for All” — attacked for covering illegal immigrants, too.
“I happen to believe that when I talk about health care as a human right, that applies to all people in this country,” he said.