Trump’s unchallenged immigration falsehoods leave advocates frustrated and fearful

Former President Donald Trump dominated the immigration portion of the presidential debate Thursday night, repeating lies and false narratives with little to no pushback from President Joe Biden, who seemed unprepared to refute much of the predictable immigration misinformation his opponent was peddling.

For Jeffrey Thielman, who leads the International Institute of New England, an organization helping refugees and immigrants with resettlement needs, the debate was peppered with moments in which Biden “was not able to articulate very clearly what he was thinking.”

“That’s a concern,” Thielman said, adding that his organization has been bracing for the prospect of a second Trump term. He described it as “frightening” because the organization anticipates it may lose a third of its federal funding if Trump wins.

His worry echoed that of a dozen Latino and immigrant rights organizations that spoke to NBC News. They expressed disappointment over a debate that deviated from any meaningful solutions and sparked fear over the future of immigration policy.

Biden missed an important opportunity to fact-check his opponent and provide appropriate context to the immigration issue, and to steer it away from the “dehumanizing rhetoric that falsely depicts immigrants as inherent threats,” 16 Latino advocacy organizations, including America’s Voice, Alianza for Progress, Latino Victory and Voto Latino, said in a joint statement Friday.

Throughout the campaign trail, Trump and other Republicans have latched on to a handful of criminal cases involving immigrants as a way to push for hard-line immigration policies, even though “recent research suggests that those who immigrate (legally or illegally) are not more likely, and may even be less likely to commit crime in the U.S.,” according to the National Institute of Justice at the U.S. Department of Justice.

Nayna Gupta, policy director of the National Immigrant Justice Center, said it was problematic in the debate when the focus was about individual criminal acts involving migrants “in a way to suggest that immigrant communities overall are somehow dangerous.”

Clarissa Martinez, vice president of the Latino vote initiative at UnidosUS, said the president missed another good opportunity to “focus on the balanced approach that Latinos want to see” when it comes to immigration issues.

Biden did not bring up his administration’s most recent immigration actions barring migrants who cross the border unlawfully from receiving asylum and expanding protections to undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens and their children.

At a time when Trump has made immigration a centerpiece of his campaign, polls shows that Latinos are not only hearing more from Republicans on immigration but also have dwindling confidence in Democrats’ handling of the issue.

“If the other side is not showing up to define themselves, your opponent will define you,” Martinez said about the cost of Biden not being able to articulate his immigration agenda during the debate.

Stephen Nuño, a political scientist at Northern Arizona University, said Biden and the Democrats have clearly struggled to pierce through Trump’s immigration rhetoric, which was demonstrated in the debate. Trump accused Biden of letting “millions” of people in the U.S. “that are from prisons, people that are from mental institutions, insane asylums, terrorists.”

“What’s a reasonable rebuttal to something that is not only a lie, but crazy? … Other than saying, ‘That’s not true,’” Nuño said.

Trump also said that migrants were taking “Black jobs” and “Hispanic jobs,” which got pushback on what those terms even mean.

There’s also no evidence for Trump’s claims: Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that Black and Hispanic workers have seen gains during both the Biden and Trump administrations.

Under Trump, the unemployment rate for Black people fell to 5.3% in September 2019 and to 3.9% for Latinos — reaching record lows at the time. Those rates dropped again under Biden, with Black people seeing a new low of 4.8% in April 2023 and Hispanics reaching 3.9% unemployment again in September 2022.

‘Missed opportunity’

Trump focused on the economy, crime and immigration during his debate performance — deflecting questions he got on other topics to divert attention to the trifecta of issues that has consistently fueled his base.

Several times during the debate, Trump falsely said Biden is “destroying Medicare because all of these people are coming in, they’re putting them on Medicare. They’re putting them on Social Security,” also saying “millions of people are pouring into our country” and “taking the place of our citizens.”

Trump also falsely said, “We have a border that’s the most dangerous place anywhere in the world — considered the most dangerous place anywhere in the world.”

Marisa Limon Garza, executive director of Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center, said that “after last night’s debate, one thing was clear: Politicians often ignore facts when discussing the border and immigrant communities. … These mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters aren’t the scapegoats for all of our nation’s ills.”

Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, president and CEO of Global Refuge, said she doesn’t think the discussion around immigration “left anyone feeling enlightened.”

“Unfortunately, the discourse was dominated by misinformation that went unchallenged, and that’s a missed opportunity,” she said, adding that crises like affordable housing and the opioid epidemic are being blamed on immigrants. “And that, I think it gives people false hope that if we shut the border, that it’ll solve those issues,” she said. “And that’s clearly not the case.”

Thielman pointed to what he’s seen happen in his community and the threat that can follow from Trump’s incendiary rhetoric.

“There’s all sorts of hate groups that come to the hotels where we have clients — you know, come and attack our work,” Thielman said. “That’s just gonna accelerate, that’s gonna get whipped up, and it’s gonna get even worse.”

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