The first round of Democratic debates took place last month in Miami, Florida. Coincidence? Not likely. By holding it in Miami—a majority Latino city with 70 percent of the population identifying as Hispanic—Democratic candidates were given the opportunity to introduce themselves to the second largest minority in the country. And yet, candidates missed the moment.
Talk of Latin American foreign policy was little to none outside the topic of immigration. Although immigration has and should continue to be at the forefront of debates and one of the U.S.’s greatest concerns (no matter where you stand on the debate), Latin America-specific policy has been left out of the conversation.
Presidential hopefuls have ripped into President Donald Trump’s immigration policy, especially focusing on his “zero tolerance” policy. South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg called it “dead wrong” and New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand accused Trump of “[tearing] apart the moral fabric of who we are.” But the truth is that even in a crowded pool of candidates fighting for the 2020 nomination, many have failed to address how they would work with Latin American countries to address the root causes that push Latin American and Caribbean migrants to seek a better life in the United States.
Here is what some candidates, including the top five based on recent rankings, have said about Latin American policy.
Michael Bennett (U.S. Senator for Colorado)
Michael Bennett made an impact in the most recent democratic debate with his strong stance on Latin America. Bennett has stated that if he is elected, he will work toward fixing the current humanitarian crisis at the border by working directly with Latin American leaders as well as putting pressure on U.S. officials to do more to address the crisis at the border in a humane way. He believes that by reaching out to various leaders in Central America, he will be able to come up with solutions toward various problems within the countries themselves, to address the problem at the root rather than focusing solely on the border itself.
Joe Biden (former U.S. Vice President)
Frontrunner Joe Biden has been adamant about Trump’s foreign policy for Latin America. Biden was actively engaged with policy toward the region during his time as vice-president and believes that action in Latin America is essential for the entire Western Hemisphere. Biden believes that in taking a step back from Latin America, the U.S. has allowed for other global players such as China and Russia to dominate the region through investment and trade, among other things.
Biden has also stated that current U.S. policy toward Latin America and immigration is “morally bankrupt” and requires intense reform, while maintaining a level of respect for immigrants fleeing difficult situations in their home countries. The former vice-president believes that DREAMers should qualify as Americans and that the current American asylum program needs to be readjusted to efficiently provide the benefits it is supposed to for those fleeing persecution, while also eliminating persistent levels of abuse. And instead of a wall, Biden has pushed for the improvement of screening procedures and the need for investment in border technology. In order to truly reduce immigration, in Biden’s view root problems such as economic and security issues in sending countries—such as the Northern Triangle—need to be addressed. If elected, Biden hopes that foreign policy toward Latin America will reflect “American values,” as opposed to how the Trump administration is currently conducting foreign policy.
Biden is also one of the few democratic presidential hopefuls who have voiced a public opinion about the U.S. embargo toward Cuba. Having supported the re-establishment of relations with Cuba and lifting the trade/travel restrictions against the island during Barack Obama’s administration, Biden naturally supports normalizing relations with the island ahead of his 2020 presidential run.
Pete Buttigieg (Mayor of South Bend, Indiana)
Mayor Pete Buttigieg has discussed his foreign policy toward Latin America in a variety of interviews. Buttigieg has made it clear that he believes in immigration reform in order to end family separation and review ICE’s current methods. He believes in increasing the number of refugees allowed into the nation as well as increasing funding toward aiding humanitarian crises.
Although he has said that military intervention should be an option for the United States to deal with human rights violations when there is no other alternative, on the case of Venezuela Buttigieg does not believe military intervention will be a useful tool, rather he believes that economic or diplomatic tools should be implemented.
Buttigieg also supports granting citizenship to the DREAMers. On NAFTA the mayor has referred to the agreement as a bad deal that requires reform. He holds fifth place in national polls.
Kamala Harris (U.S. Senator for California)
So far, Kamala Harris hasn’t articulated policy views toward Latin America and the Caribbean. But she has addressed the issue of immigration policy. Throughout her campaign, Harris has emphasized her direct experience with children and adults who have sought asylum in the United States during her time as a prosecutor. Based on these experiences, Harris believes that the current abuses towards immigrants at the border need to be addressed to stop the violation of human rights. The U.S. Senator for California—currently polling third behind hopefuls Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden, according to the latest Economist-YouGov poll—believes that it is crucial to close private detention facilities and increase the oversight of border patrol agencies to focus on the safety of immigrants and their families as well as the general public.
Harris has been clear about her opposition to Donald Trump’s anti-immigration stance. Harris was also the first Senator to call for the removal of former secretary of homeland security Kirstjen Nielson, who resigned in April 2019.
Harris believes in the reinstatement of DACA and DAPA to protect DREAMers from deportation and hopes to increase investment to minimize the flow of narcotics, weapons and human trafficking across the border. She also intends to pursue a policy that will lead to a stable Central America which would consequently prevent massive flows of migration. However, Harris has yet to provide concrete steps or policies to promote the stabilization of Central America, so far remaining in simple declarations. Harris holds fourth place in national polls.
Beto O’Rourke (former U.S. Representative for Texas’ 16th Congressional district)
Despite his clumsy efforts to speak Spanish, Beto O’Rourke has yes to really address the issue of foreign policy toward the hemisphere, with the exception of immigration-related proposals. O’Rourke’s immigration plan “Reforming Our Immigration and Naturalization System and Making the System Work Better for Our Families, Our Communities, and Our Economy,“ goes beyond domestic politics. For O’Rourke, the United States needs to refocus its standing on democracy and human rights, starting with greater engagement in the region. O’Rourke’s plan is to elevate Latin America’s geopolitical importance to address one of the U.S.’s most vexing domestic issues, by helping partner countries effectively reduce violence, end the war on drugs and combat climate change, among other common goals.
To do this, the plan proposes “working with [the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to expand the capacity of Mexico’s refugee system and to collaborate with Mexico on asylum seekers who are both traveling to and through Mexico.” It also includes investing $5 billion in the Northern Triangle to transform the U.S.’s development approach in Central America, a proposal Mexico will certainly endorse, since it recently presented its own Integral Development Plan along with the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL) to address the root causes of migration in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico.
Bernie Sanders (U.S. Senator for Vermont)
Sanders’ stance toward Venezuela differs from other 2020 candidates. He opposes outside intervention in the country and has not come out and called Nicolás Maduro a dictator, something that has upset Democrats and Republicans alike. He has also not recognized Juan Guaidó as the legitimate leader of Venezuela, even when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi recognized “Juan Guaidó, President of the National Assembly, as the Interim President until full, fair and free elections can be held.” When it comes to Cuba, Sanders supports normalizing relations with the island and lifting the embargo.
Immigration reform is high on Bernie Sanders’ list of important issues he needs to tackle. He believes that a proper path toward citizenship should be implemented in DACA and DAPA to help asylum seekers speed up the naturalization process. Sanders originally voted against the creation of ICE and believes in restructuring the agency to reform immigration practice and end the agency’s brutal practices, including family separation. To make sure that agencies such as ICE are operating fairly, Sanders believes in the establishment of standards that would allow for the oversight of border control agencies, to guarantee that no U.S. government agency commits any human rights violation.
Sanders is one of the few democratic hopefuls who has emphasized the necessity of looking at root causes when it comes to immigration. In the first democratic presidential debate, Sanders stated that on day one, he would invite the presidents and leadership of Central America and Mexico together to address the root causes of migration because this is a “hemispheric issue.”. Sanders also believes that the U.S. has had a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American countries, which has yielded disastrous conditions, many of which have affected the number of asylum seekers fleeing their home countries today.
Regarding Puerto Rico, Sanders has listed the Caribbean island as a main issue the U.S. needs to reexamine. He believes that the resources available to the U.S.should be used toward helping rebuild Puerto Rico after the damage caused by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. He wants to restore “self-rule” in Puerto Rico by removing Wall Street vulture funds from the country to allow for the empowerment of the Puerto Rican people themselves. Sanders is in second place in national polls, behind Vice President Joe Biden and ahead of Senator Elizabeth Warren.
Elizabeth Warren (U.S. Senator for Massachusetts)
Elizabeth Warren labels her foreign policy a “foreign policy for all.” But despite her famous stock of proposals and plans, Warren doesn’t seem to have a comprehensive one for policy in the Western Hemisphere. She believes that current foreign policy has been implemented to only benefit the wealthy and requires intense reform to benefit the 99 percent. Warren opposes the ratification of “NAFTA 2.0,” (or its official name “United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement)” the deal that the Trump administration struck to replace NAFTA. Regarding Venezuela, Warren opposes military interventions but supports sanctions on the country if they are implemented in tandem with supplying humanitarian aid. On June 3, 2019, Warren co-sponsored a resolution that prohibits unauthorized military action in Venezuela.
On other neighbor issues, Warren is strongly critical of the border wall and supports re-installing President Obama’s immigration reform to fix a system that she feels the Republican party has ruined. Warren is a supporter of including a pathway toward citizenship for DREAMers and their families and supports the idea of providing legal aid to immigrants facing deportation, which is why she co-sponsored S.2540/H.R.4646, a bill that allows the government to pay the expenses of legal counsel for immigrants.
Warren also believes in the need to provide aid to Puerto Rico to allow the country to become prosperous and recover from the damage incurred by the hurricanes. To that end, she believes in bringing forth legislation, such as the U.S. Territorial Relief Act, that would allow the United States to help Puerto Rico as it continues to be affected by a financial crisis. Warren ranks third in national polls.
A second debate… a second chance to address Latin America
Although Latin American foreign policy has managed to squeeze its way in to the democratic debate through the topic of immigration, candidates should start realizing there are larger concerns in the region other than immigration. Even as candidates start announcing their foreign policy agenda, so far little has been said about the region. Let’s hope that changes soon.
As we get closer to the second democratic debate held in Detroit, Michigan, hopefully candidates will start addressing these concerns. If not, they miss a second opportunity to speak directly to Latinos—in a city whose increases in population rise has been fueled by Hispanic (and Asian) immigrants.