Despite outrage over border policy, most 2020 Democrats offer few specifics to meet crisis

By Alexander Tin

/ CBS News

Migrant kids moved from unsanitary facility

The 2020 Democratic presidential field was quick to respond to reports of children detained in inhumane conditions at a Texas border facility, yet only a handful of candidates have offered specifics on how their own prospective administrations would address the surge of asylum-seekers at the border.

Democrats' fury at the Trump administration boiled over late last week, after attorneys Thursday detailed grisly conditions for children held for weeks at one overcrowded Border Patrol facility.

Candidates denounced the squalor — Sens. Kamala Harris and Kirsten Gillibrand both accused the government of "child abuse."

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"If your child was held for days on end without access to soap, a bed, or a toothbrush, would you call it safe? Sanitary? Humane?" Sen. Amy Klobuchar tweeted Sunday.

Nearly every candidate has vowed to curb or eliminate the detention of children and families while their asylum claims are processed.

Yet most candidates have offered few policy details on how they would free detained migrants, or what parts of the asylum process would be changed. ln interviews and events, their answers have often been vague and forward-looking, as they pledge to draw up their own "humane border policy."

Pressed on the issue Saturday, Harris stopped short of promising to immediately release all families in the government's custody.

"Well, no, listen, there has to be a process in place," the California Democrat told CBS News political correspondent Ed O'Keefe.

"Let's again figure out what the goal is. Is the goal to put people in cages? Or is the goal to make sure that we have a process by which we make sure that those who deserve safety and refuge — that they receive it?" Harris added later.

The president has often derided the so-called "catch-and-release" practice as a loophole for migrants. However, supporters of the policy cite a recent analysis of federal court records, finding that about six out of every seven released families showed up for at least their initial court hearing.

Some candidates are taking a broader view of the issue. Former Vice President Joe Biden on Monday became the latest candidate to pledge to address the "root causes" behind the surge of migrants, through a "united, regional response."

But this year, only three candidates have outlined specific plans to address the immediate situation at the border: former Texas congressman Beto O'Rourke, former Obama housing chief Julián Castro, and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

Among the ideas being floated, both O'Rourke and Castro have vowed to replace the Justice Department-run immigration process with an independent "Article 1" court outside the executive branch. The American Bar Association and the Federal Bar Association have long urged Congress to create such a system.

The two Texans have also promised to use their authority to reverse the Trump administration's immigration practices, like ending asylum and the so-called "Remain in Mexico" policy.

Booker has taken a different approach. Through legislation he has introduced with Democrats in the House, the New Jersey senator hopes to radically curb the ability of federal authorities to detain migrants. He is calling for mandatory bond hearings before immigration judges for all immigrant detainees and for requiring the government to prove asylum seekers should be detained because they pose either a flight risk or a risk to the community.

And when candidates this year were asked whether they supported increased border security funding and granting more resources to process asylum seekers, only Booker rejected a funding boost.

"I believe we should better utilize and prioritize existing funds," Booker told The Washington Post.

"We can enforce our international borders and keep our country safe without sacrificing our values, our moral leadership and billions of dollars in taxpayer money."

Candidates are likely to be pressed on how they plan to handle immigration issues soon, particularly since the first television debates of the Democratic primary are taking place in Latino-heavy Miami and will be co-hosted by the Spanish-language television network Telemundo.

And in early presidential contests like Nevada, where Latinos made up nearly a third of voters in 2018, leaders warn that communities will notice those who duck the topic.

"A lot of these families are either first generation, or their kids are Dreamers, and they are paying attention to what is happening on the border," Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto said Monday, asked by CBS News.

"It is their number one issue for many," the Nevada Democrat added.

Border Patrol officials claim that families flooding U.S.-Mexico border, many fleeing gruesome violence and poverty in Latin America, have overwhelmed federal resources. The agency reports that unauthorized border crossings have nearly tripled over the same time last year, with more than 144 thousand apprehended in May.

Last week's revelations were just the latest episode of alleged mistreatment in immigration-related detention — from nooses found at an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in California to days-long delays for medical treatment at a Florida facility for unaccompanied migrant children.

Some White House hopefuls looking to dodge the issue could also soon be forced to confront the border crisis back in Washington, as an intra-party debate rages on Capitol Hill over an emergency funding measure to address the influx of immigrants.

While Speaker Nancy Pelosi has insisted that the House Democrats' measure "does not fund the Administration's mass detention policy," progressives have decried the bill as paying into "a fundamentally cruel and broken immigration system."

"We cannot turn our backs on the abuses taking place on our own soil, executed by our own government," Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib said in a statement opposing the measure.

"We must create an immigration system that reflects our values and respects the dignity and humanity of all," they added.

First published on June 25, 2019 / 3:50 PM

© 2019 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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