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For A 2nd Night, Immigration Was A Big Debate Issue


All right. Immigration was a big issue in last night's debate as expected. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez was keeping an eye on the questions and the answers.

Good morning, Franco.


KING: So in the first debate, there was this really striking moment between Julian Castro and Beto O'Rourke. Castro was arguing that he wants to change the law so that crossing into the U.S. without documentation is a civil offense not a criminal one. He was really hammering that. Last night, what did we learn about where these 10 candidates stand on immigration? Was anyone distinctive?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, what we learned is that it is still a very big issue for Democrats. It's that moral outrage over how children have been treated at the border. It's the rhetoric that Trump uses to describe immigrants. And it's not just the candidates. We got to remember a growing number of Americans see this as one of the most important problems facing the country - 23%, actually, according to the most recent Gallup poll just this week. That's the highest measured number in two decades. As you note, on Wednesday, the kind of back and forth between Beto O'Rourke and Julian Castro - that was the biggest source of fireworks; talking about whether crossing the border is a crime. But there was also a source of - you know, was also the source of some tense moments last night.

KING: Last night, there was a really interesting moment. The moderators asked the candidates if their health care plans would cover people who were in the country illegally. Let's play that.


SAVANNAH GUTHRIE: OK. A lot of you have been talking tonight about these government health care plans that you've proposed in one form or another. This is a show of hands question, and hold them up for a moment so people can see. Raise your hand if your government plan would provide coverage for undocumented immigrants.


KING: All 10 hands shot right up - really, really interesting moment. Why does that matter? What does that signify?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, it may not matter so much during the primary because as you said, every hand shot up. But, really, even a decade ago, that kind of idea was not - that was a very controversial opinion, even for the Democrats. Do you remember, you know, in 2009, when the South Carolina member of Congress screamed out, you lie, to President Obama when he addressed a joint Congress? That was when President Obama was promising or pledging that his health care plan would not cover those here illegally, which it does not. So last night's moment, you know, even caught President Trump's attention. It's how we learned that he was watching. It was just a few minutes later that he was tweeting out about a need to take care of Americans first. He tweeted, that's the end of the race.

KING: That's a quote he tweeted, yeah. That's the end of the race, the president said. So we talked to a Republican strategist earlier today who said maybe not so much. You know, immigration really is the president's kind of bete noire, but that's not necessarily the way all voters feel. What is Trump banking on by tweeting something like that? Is this just a rally of the base kind of moment?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, in a way, yes, but this does play into his "America First" narrative. It gives him something else to point to to kind of show how Democrats are moving to the left on this issue as was expected during the primary. But in his perspective, it'll be a chance to show how the Democrats' views are moving away from everyday Americans. And let's point. It's not just him. Ari Fleischer, the press secretary of George W. Bush, he said the gesture will haunt Democrats after the primaries, and this is going to be a lead balloon for the general election.

KING: And you point out, just very quickly, Franco, there's been a shift in the Democratic Party's stance on immigration since the Obama years.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. This is really a dangerous issue for the Democrats. How do you talk about immigration enforcement? They can't afford to sound anything like Trump. Even president - pardon me - Biden was very defensive when the moderator was asking him about all the deportations under Obama.

KING: NPR White House correspondent Frank Ordoñez.

Franco, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.