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Immigration is the new flash point in Democratic primaries

Letty Leal, with her daughter Alyssa, 2, of McAllen, Texas, joined a protest at the Border Patrol processing center in McAllen on Monday.Delcia Lopez/The Monitor via AP/The Monitor via AP

The national political discussion for weeks has been dominated by President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policies, including the separation of families who have illegally crossed the border. And for Democrats, at least politically, that’s brought a new version of the same question: How far left are they willing to go?

Consider last weekend, when Representative Michael Capuano, a Somerville Democrat locked in his first major primary battle in two decades, headed to a detention center at the border.

“What I saw in Texas broke my heart. There is no sign that the Trump administration has a credible plan for reuniting families,” Capuano tweeted. “This must be a priority. @realDonaldTrump — you created this problem and you must fix it.”


Hours after Capuano returned to Massachusetts, his primary opponent, City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, upped the ante by saying she wants to defund the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency because it poses an “existential threat” to immigrant communities.

In the crowded open-seat race for Congress around Lowell, state Senator Barbara L’Italien, a Democrat, addressed hundreds at a State House rally last week, calling for separated families who were detained under Trump’s policies to be reunited.

One of her opponents in the Third District primary, State Representative Juana Matias, delivered a “shame on you” to first lady Melania Trump after she wore a jacket emblazoned with the words “I really don’t care. Do u?“ while en route to a Texas detention center where children were held. Another candidate in the Sept. 4 primary, Lori Trahan, also called for “No more separations. No more prosecutions.”

It’s a dynamic among Democrats that extends far beyond the state line.

In New York, which has a primary on Tuesday, Representative Joe Crowley, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, called ICE agents “freelance cowboys” under Trump. Crowley’s first primary opponent in 14 years, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, went further: She, like Pressley, wants ICE gone altogether.


In New York’s Democratic primary for governor, actress Cynthia Nixon didn’t just call for ICE to be abolished, she called it a “terrorist organization.” For months, Nixon has been staking out positions to the left of Governor Andrew Cuomo in their primary.

In Maine, Democrats are largely supporting independent Senator Angus King for reelection this year. The Democratic Party’s official nominee, Zak Ringelstein, has been largely ignored through the campaign —

until Friday, when

as he tried to enter a Texas detention facility with toys and other supplies for children. He was

and welcomed home by some of the most prominent headlines he’s received so far in the campaign.

On Sunday, King went on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” where he was asked only about immigration and replied, “There are a number of proposals kicking around.” King said the Senate is committed to “not separating” families and assured viewers that “this is where the discussion is.”

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire on Wednesday, Democratic candidate for governor Steve Marchand will unveil a so-called Sanctuary State program. Marchand has styled himself as a progressive upstart compared to his opponent, former state senator Molly Kelly, who enjoys the backing of both US senators in the September primary.

It doesn’t stop with this year’s midterm elections. Potential 2020 candidates are similarly outspoken on the immigration issue.

On Sunday, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts flew to the border, and Senator Kamala Harris of California joined the call to defund ICE. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont didn’t go quite that far, telling CNN, “I think what we need is to create policies which deal with immigration in a rational way.”


The irony for Democrats is that Republicans have been hand-wringing over their own politics on immigration policy for at least a decade. And it’s pretty clear where that debate has taken them.

In the 2008 GOP primary, one of the biggest topics was immigration — whether candidates would push for a comprehensive solution to the millions of undocumented persons in the country. Two GOP candidates — Duncan Hunter and Tom Tancredo — ran as single-issue candidates on immigration.

In the elections that followed, Republican candidates moved to the right. The eventual result, many would argue, was Trump’s campaign: Not only did he make building a border wall his biggest domestic priority, but he launched his campaign with a phrase describing immigrants as “bringing drugs” and “crime” to the United States, as well as labeling them as “rapists.”

It’s up to Democrats where the party’s left will push them on immigration in these primaries. But one thing is for sure: We are in the middle of finding out.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: