In the most aggressive and contentious Democratic debate so far this primary season, Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton squabbled on Wednesday night over immigration and the economy. The debate, co-moderated by Univision and the Washington Post, took place in Florida, where a substantial Hispanic population has helped to make immigration a critical issue during the presidential race.
The moderators doggedly interrogated the candidates throughout the night with several short, point-blank questions. On immigration, which took up a large portion of the first hour, Univision’s Jorge Ramos got both Clinton and Sanders to promise not to deport children or immigrants without a criminal record, a significant shift from current policy.
Both Clinton and Sanders have name-checked President Barack Obama often throughout this race, a tactical move considering how popular the current president remains among Democrats. But during Wednesday’s debate, Clinton and Sanders separated themselves from the current administration when it came to deportation.
The above visualization shows deportation data, separating out two different categories the Department of Homeland Security uses for classification. Returns, in red, are people who could have been deported but left on their own. Removals, in blue, are people the government forces out, or deports. As the visualization shows, Obama has presided over an uptick in deportations.
An InsideGov analysis found that, according to the most recent data available from Homeland Security, Obama has overseen more than 2 million deportations during his time in office. The actions create a stark contrast to campaign promises Obama made in 2008, when he first ran for president and assured voters he would enact comprehensive immigration reform and stop the break-up of families by deportation.
During Wednesday’s debate, Clinton and Sanders both drove a wedge between themselves and Obama on the issue. Sanders said that although he agrees with Obama on many issues, the president is “wrong on this issue of deportation.” Clinton, who has invoked Obama’s name relentlessly on the campaign trail, was more calculated with her language on Wednesday, saying, “I do not have the same policy as the current administration does” about deportations. She said her priority would be to deport violent criminals and terrorists, but to end the immigration raids and round-ups that have led some to call Obama the “deporter in chief.”
The debate also featured audience questions, which were delivered in Spanish and then translated for the candidates onstage. A particularly memorable moment came early on in the evening, when a Guatemalan immigrant woman in the audience asked about reuniting families where someone had been deported. Through a translator, the woman explained that her husband was deported three years ago and that she and her five children haven’t seen him since then. Sanders told the woman he would do everything he could to unite her family, while Clinton used the exchange to express her support for programs that exempt from deportation people who came to the U.S. when they were young or who have children who are American citizens.
According to polling data from RealClearPolitics, Clinton currently holds a 30-plus point lead in Florida, with one specific poll calling attention to her support among Hispanics and African-Americans. But that all doesn’t guarantee her a win in the Sunshine State’s fast approaching primary.
Wednesday’s debate came just 24 hours after Sanders scored a surprise win in the Michigan primary on March 8. Polls had him down by an average of 20 points, but he ended up winning Michigan by almost 20,000 votes. The Vermont senator, clearly buoyed by the recent victory, approached this most recent debate with an extra bit of spunk, delivering a handful of witty and memorable quips about Clinton’s record and her paid speeches to Wall Street banks.
It remains to be seen whether Sanders can convert the momentum from his upset Michigan win and a solid debate performance into victories on March 15, the next big day in the primary calendar. There are 792 total Democratic delegates up for grabs that day when primaries take place in Florida, Ohio, Illinois, Missouri and North Carolina.