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Immigration Is a Central Issue for Voters. It Was Lost in Thursday’s Debate.

“I think the brief moment that immigration was discussed in this debate, I don’t think either one of them were very clear,” said a leader of a pro-immigration reform group.

Border Patrol agents talk with migrants seeking asylum as they prepare them for transportation to be processed.
Gregory Bull/AP

President Joe Biden only had a few minutes to talk about immigration on the debate stage Thursday, but what he said was muddled.

Biden did call back to controversy during Trump’s presidency over family separation and the Senate bipartisan border deal that failed partly due to Trump’s influence.

“He was taking, separating babies from their mothers, putting them in cages, making sure their families were separated. That’s not the right way to go,” Biden said at one point.

“When we had that deal done, he went and he called his Republican colleagues, said, ‘Don’t do it. It’s gonna hurt me politically,’” he said about the Senate bill.

But other points seemed to get lost. He tried to take a jab at Trump for blaming undocumented immigrants for rape while promoting anti-abortion policies, but the point was confusing. He claimed the Border Patrol endorsed him (which they, emphatically, did not) when he likely meant they endorsed the bipartisan Senate deal, and he didn’t draw back the conversation to discuss the benefit of immigrants to the U.S. economy, which is a common Democratic talking point.

However, one Democratic consultant said that despite flubs, panic over Biden’s immigration messaging is premature.

“Did you not know he was 81 years old? That’s not new information. Like, the guy’s been old since before he got elected the first time,” they said. “It’s also not new information that Trump is a crazy liar; that’s why I don’t think it changes anything.”

They said that debates don’t change public opinion that much. Campaigns are long and come down to much more than how a candidate talks on TV, they said.

“Let the man be old and have better policy than the crazy, deranged, authoritarian lunatic,” they said.

On social media, many Democrats stayed quiet about Biden’s performance on an issue that’s top of mind for voters, and instead redirected the focus to attacking former President Donald Trump.

“Donald Trump still proudly uses the language that inspired a shooter to drive 10 hours to my community to murder migrants,” Rep. Veronica Escobar, a Biden campaign co-chair, said on X. “It’s vile. It’s unacceptable. It’s deadly.”

“Let’s be clear: Donald Trump has been the worst President for immigrants and Latinos in decades,” Rep. Robert Garcia, who attended the debate with Biden, said on X.

There were only a few questions focused on immigration on the stage, but Trump repeatedly attacked immigrants during unrelated segments and drew back the conversation to border security. On actual policy, both candidates didn’t contribute many details.

“I think the brief moment that immigration was discussed in this debate, I don’t think either one of them were very clear,” said Douglas Rivlin, senior director of communications for the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice. “I don’t know whether the Biden strategy is just to talk about immigration as little as possible, but I think that’s the wrong strategy.”

Democrats seem to have accepted that the best thing for Biden is really to highlight the worst things from Trump. Rivlin wanted much more pressure on Trump’s “mass deportation” claim, which was asked about, but Trump didn’t end up addressing it.

“The strategy ought to be to lean in and push back on what is really a very extreme position,” he said.

The Democratic strategist was likewise disappointed that CNN didn’t pressure Trump more on that point.

“I thought the CNN moderators did a very poor job of forcing Trump to actually answer questions,” they said. “But Trump never answers questions because he’s afraid to, and I think that came through tonight.”

Trump, for his part, mostly focused on crimes committed by undocumented immigrants.

“We call it migrant crime. I call it Biden migrant crime. They’re killing our citizens at a level that we’ve never seen before,” he said.

Republicans felt better about how Trump handled the issue.

Texas Rep. Chip Roy said Biden was “unintelligible” and didn’t feel Trump dodging the question on mass deportation was a negative.

“Trump didn’t take the bait and focused on the indefensible open-borders killing Americans,” Roy said in a text message.

Casey Murray is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.