Milwaukee — Democratic presidential candidates at a League of United Latin American Citizens town hall here Thursday night ripped President Trump over his immigration policies while pledging to reform a system they described as broken.
The candidates also shared their plans on issues such as health care, education and climate change during the group’s national convention.
Speaking during the event were Julián Castro, who served as San Antonio mayor and U.S. Housing and Urban Development secretary; Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren; Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Texas U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke. Each candidate appeared separately and took questions from the moderator and several audience members.
Castro, who was first to speak, said he would repeal immigration policies enacted under Presidents George W. Bush and Trump so future administrations can’t “weaponize” the laws to detain asylum seekers and separate children from families.
He said those coming from Central America are no different than those from past generations who came from Ireland, Germany, Italy and other countries.
“Everybody was fleeing desperate circumstances,” Castro said. “That’s the common denominator.”
He called for a 20th Century Marshall Plan to improve conditions in Central America so people will want to stay in their home countries.
He also called for allowing veterans who have been deported to return to the U.S. and begin the process of gaining citizenship.
Castro responded to criticism from former Vice President Joe Biden and O’Rourke about his plan to decriminalize crossing the border saying both are “wrong on this.”
Sanders leveled the sharpest criticism at the president, calling Trump a racist, a bigot, a xenophobe and “an embarrassment to everything this country stands for.”
He pledged to provide legal status to all people eligible for the DACA program and move toward a path to citizenship for all undocumented immigrants in the country.
He also said he would “develop a humane policy at the border, not one which criminalizes desperate people for having traveled a thousand miles, not one that puts children into cages, not one that rips babies out of the arms of their mothers.”
Sanders said shortly after being elected he would meet with Mexican and Central American leaders to find ways the U.S. can play a role in alleviating the poverty and violence he said is driving immigration.
“Everything being equal, nobody wants to travel a thousand miles, they’d rather live at home in peace and security,” said Sanders, who did an invitation-only event at a Milwaukee coffee shop ahead of the forum.
While he discussed immigration, he spent much of his time laying out his plans to enact single-payer health coverage for all, provide tuition-free college and cancel student debt.
Ahead of the event, the Republican National Committee touted an unemployment rate of 4.3 percent for Hispanics in June, near record lows, and the president’s efforts to reach out to Hispanics with the launch of Latinos for Trump.
“The President’s policies are clearly working while the socialist platform adopted by the 2020 Democrat field would kill our economy,” said RNC spokeswoman Mandi Merritt.
Warren said she would expand legal immigration, create a path to citizenship for those already in the country, work to end the crisis at the border and provide more aid to Central America to improve conditions there “so not so many people feel they need to run for their lives.”
“No great nation tears families apart, no great nation locks up children,” said Warren, who also did a town hall at a Milwaukee high school Thursday night.
Warren said Trump’s plan to gather data on non-citizens living in the U.S. through various agencies after he dropped his effort to ask a citizenship question during the census isn’t really about collecting data, but rather sewing division.
Warren said Trump’s message for those who are struggling is to blame people who don’t look or sound like they do or come from the same place as themselves.
“He wants to build an America that pits working people against hard-working people,” Warren said. “That is not how we build a future in this country. We build a future together. That’s how we build a stronger America. ”
She also addressed her plans to provide tuition-free college, cancel debt for most students, fight climate change and reform the criminal justice system.
O’Rourke slammed Trump’s plan to conduct immigration raids and deport thousands of people starting this weekend. He said many of the people targeted pose no threat to the country and that potentially thousands of families will be separated. He added that the enforcement actions will cause distrust between law enforcement and those in targeted communities resulting in people being less likely to report crimes or cooperate with authorities.
“What he proposes to do this weekend … will not only remain a stain on our conscience if we allow this to continue, but will also make us less safe as a country,” O’Rourke said.
O’Rourke said he will lead an effort to rewrite the nation’s immigration laws. He said those seeking refuge should not be charged with a crime, children detained in camps should be freed and reunited with their parents “at once,” and that the U.S. must invest in strategies in Central America to fight poverty, hunger and violence. He also called for citizenship for legal residents and those eligible for DACA and legal status for undocumented immigrants.
Additionally, while praising the work of border patrol agents, he called for greater oversight and accountability for the agency.
O’Rourke also criticized Trump on foreign policy, saying the president favors strongmen and dictators over traditional U.S. allies, called for equal pay for women, and discussed his plans to fight climate change.
Asked about how he would heal the country after Trump, O’Rourke said he would work to bring people together regardless of political affiliation or whether they hail from cities or rural areas.
“It certainly can’t be with more division, more pettiness and more meanness.,” he said. “He is defining this country right now by the walls that he seeks to construct and the cages in which he has placed those kids. To that fear, we must bring our courage, our confidence, our ambition and our aspirations, and we must bring everyone.”
Both Castro and O’Rourke took questions from reporters after they left the stage.
Milwaukee is often cited as one of the most segregated cities in the nation, and Castro said he’d address that by enforcing fair housing laws, working to provide affordable housing in higher-opportunity neighborhoods and improving public schools.
Addressing the same question, O’Rourke said he would address segregation by providing equal funding for minority school districts, hiring “teachers who look like the students in front of them” and ensuring federal housing dollars are spent in ways that don’t separate people by race or income.
Hawaii U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who did not participate in the town hall, also addressed reporters after the event.
Gabbard participated in a breakfast event with veterans and an awards banquet at the conference in addition to holding a town hall at the Jackson Blue Ribbon Pub in Milwaukee
Asked how she can win votes in states like Wisconsin that Trump flipped Republican in 2016, Gabbard, a veteran who served in Iraq and Kuwait, pointed to her message of “service above self” that she said veterans hold dear.
She said what’s she’s heard from those who have voted Democratic in the past but voted for Trump is indicative of “leaders who’ve left the people behind” to benefit themselves and large corporations.
“Putting this focus on service above self is exactly how we best meet the needs and address the challenges that people both across the Midwest and across the country are facing,” she said.
Dem candidate Marianne Williamson was slated to address a Women’s Hall of Fame Luncheon at the convention Friday.