4 Immigration Questions The Democratic Candidates Should Answer In Florida

CREDIT: AP Photo/Jim Cole

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton, left, and Sen. Bernie Sanders, pose for a photo before debating at the University of New Hampshire

Univision, a major Spanish-language television network, will host Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders’ eighth Democratic debate at Miami Dade College in Florida on Wednesday night. Since the media channel’s viewership generally skews towards a Latino audience base, the debate moderators will likely ask about immigration policy, which is one of the most important issues among this group.

Many of Clinton’s and Sanders’ positions on immigration are similar. Since they launched their campaigns, both candidates have espoused lenient immigration policy plans for undocumented immigrants with the goal of keeping immigrant families intact and able to continue contributing to the U.S. economy.

But the candidates could still elaborate on a few issues specific to Florida residents that may also have relevance in the immigrant community at large. Here are just some of the questions that they could address on stage:

How will they help ensure that undocumented immigrants can afford college?

In 2014, Florida became the 17th state to pass a law granting in-state tuition waivers for undocumented immigrants who attended state high schools. Given that the venue for the debate will be at Miami Dade College, a post-secondary institution that has long attracted immigrants and refugees as part of its student body population, it’s possible that Sanders and Clinton may meet some of the undocumented students affected by this legislation.

Both Sanders and Clinton have advocated for undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition. And Sanders has gone one step further in supporting free tuition at public universities. But it’s as yet unclear whether such a plan could legally cover undocumented immigrants. As it stands, undocumented students do not qualify for federal aid, leaving many to work long hours or skip school all together. And even in-state tuition may be a burden for some undocumented immigrants, whose annual household income hovers around $36,000.

Issues could also arise when policies are left up to individual schools to consider, potentially allowing discrimination against applicants because of their immigration status. For example, a Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund lawsuit released on Wednesday claimed that the University of Georgia denied in-state tuition to undocumented students granted temporary work authorization and deportation relief in the form of President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) initiative.

What will the U.S. do to ensure adequate legal representation for immigrants seeking asylum?

Since a surge of Central American immigrants began streaming across the southern U.S. border in 2013, seeking asylum from dangerous conditions in their home countries, the Obama administration has doubled down on immigration enforcement.

Officials have sought to expedite immigrants’ court proceedings to determine whether they have valid claims to legally stay in the country. To accommodate the massive bottleneck of children awaiting immigration decisions, tens of thousands of kids have been placed on a so-called “rocket docket,” requiring them to appear before an immigration judge within 30 days.

But legal representatives have criticized the fast-paced nature of this approach, noting that a shortage of available counsel may leave children to represent themselves in court. Children as young as three years old have been left to fend for themselves during hearings that determine whether they can avert deportation — even though immigrant kids with lawyers are five times more likely to win asylum.

Last month, a group of Democratic senators introduced legislation that would provide more lawyers to help children argue their cases in immigration court. With little chance of that bill making it through the GOP-controlled Congress, the two candidates have a chance to explain what else they might try to address the issue.

Clinton has hailed the “rocket docket” in the past, when she noted that Central American children “needed to be processed appropriately” because the country needs to “send a message to families and communities in Central American not to send their children on this dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers.”

Do they agree that Central American immigrants should to jump through more hurdles than Cuban immigrants to file similar asylum claims?

While on the Miami Dade College campus, Sanders and Clinton may walk by the Freedom Tower, considered the “Ellis Island of the South” for its role in the 1960s and 1970s as the Cuban Assistance Center to help Cuban refugees seeking political asylum from the Fidel Castro regime.

Known as the “wet foot, dry foot” policy, this approach to Cuban immigration arose from fraught Cold War-era relations, allowing Cubans to begin their process for legal status once they arrive in the United States. In just 2013, the U.S. admitted more than 26,000 Cubans as refugees or asylees.

This is a sharp contrast with how Central Americans immigrants — particularly unaccompanied teens escaping gang violence in their home countries — try to make asylum claims in the United States. Although U.S. has acknowledged that conditions are very dangerous in Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras, undocumented immigrants continue to be rounded up for deportation and sent back to unsafe places where many deported immigrants already have gone into hiding.

Sanders and Clinton have both come out against the Obama administration’s immigration raids. But it’s unclear whether the policy on how Cuban refugees can apply for asylum will change moving forward, and neither candidate have said much on the issue.

How will they work to prevent exploitation among guest-workers in the citrus industry?

It’s estimated that 85 percent of Florida’s citrus crop workers are temporary workers on the H-2A visa program. This type of visa requires workers to be bound to a single employer. That also makes them dependent on the employer for housing, transportation, and visa paperwork for the entire period to the contract, NPR reported.

Sanders previously voted against a 2007 immigration reform package, stating that he wouldn’t support any deal that includes a big increase in the guest-worker program. He cited the fact that people get “terribly exploited and if they stood up for their rights, they would be thrown out of country.” Clinton slammed Sanders for failing to back the package, noting that it wasn’t “progressive to vote against Ted Kennedy’s immigration reform.”

Both Sanders and Clinton have advocated for a national $15 per hour minimum wage. But it’s unlikely that guest-workers would ever see such an increase given that their earnings are often tied to piecemeal transactions set by their employers. They also are denied basic leverage, namely quitting, because if they quit, they may “lose their legal right to stay in the country,” Salon reported.

Employers have been known to abuse this type of guest-worker program, subjecting these employees to low wages akin to what they would otherwise pay undocumented immigrants. Guest-workers in general earn about 11 percent less than legal permanent residents (green card holders), but as an Economic Policy Institute study found, employers can purposely fail to provide the requisite housing or a guarantee of work for at least three-fourths of the contract period to the worker.

Still, it’s unlikely that the citrus industry and the larger agricultural industry would ever get rid of the guest-worker program. According to a 2010 United Farm Workers challenge, few Americans have taken up agricultural jobs as a long-term career.