DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Last night was a lesson in what it means to be seen as the frontrunner. Joe Biden was called to task by fellow Democrats on Night 2 of a debate in Detroit. They attacked his record on race and criminal justice, also on immigration from his years in Congress and as Barack Obama's vice president. Here's one exchange between Biden and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOE BIDEN: The fact of the matter is you should be able to - if you cross the border illegally, you should be able to be sent back. It's a crime. It's a crime, and it's not one that, in fact...
UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Secretary Castro, please, your response?
JULIAN CASTRO: First of all, Mr. Vice President, it looks like one of us has learned the lessons of the past and one of us hasn't.
GREENE: NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid is in Detroit after covering the debate last night. We're also joined by NPR's Joel Rose, who covers immigration. Good morning to you both.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Hello.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Good morning.
GREENE: Joel, let me start with you. That clip we just heard touches on this question of whether illegal border crossings should be a criminal or civil offense. Why has that emerged to such a critical issue in this primary season?
ROSE: Well, basically because of President Trump and the Trump administration's family separation policy. The Trump administration started using its authority to criminally prosecute border crossers for illegal entry, which was always on the books but rarely had been prosecuted for family groups before. And once the parents were in jail, the children could not go with them, thus we had family separation. That is a choice that the Trump administration made for a while, at least, and it's a choice that none of the Democrats on the stage this week would repeat. They say they would not take that kind of zero tolerance stance to separate families.
GREENE: But the more progressive Democratic candidates we heard from, I mean, what would they do instead if they were president?
ROSE: Well, that is where we've seen a real split between the progressives and the moderates in this Democratic field. The progressives on the stage that we've seen both nights want to decriminalize border crossings so that it is still illegal but it's just a civil offense, not criminal. Julian Castro, most famously, also Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, have all signed on to this idea. They say that the country could still have border security and immigration courts like we do now - immigration courts are civil proceedings - but without criminalizing the migrants and the asylum-seekers who are coming here and fleeing from violence.
The moderates say there's a better way to get rid of family separation, and that is simply to get rid of President Trump. The moderates worry that decriminalizing border crossings would encourage more migrants to come, and I think they're worried about the political optics of this, as well, right? President Trump already says frequently that Democrats are for, quote, "open borders," which Democrats deny. But I don't think they want to give more oxygen to that line of attack.
GREENE: And surely, that is something the president will keep saying through this campaign, I would imagine. Asma, let me turn to you, and let's talk about criminal justice, another issue that really played out here. I mean, this is when you really saw that Biden is facing this reality. He has this long record in public service, which means defending a lot of things on your record. At one point, Biden was accusing New Jersey Senator Cory Booker of not doing enough to reform Newark's troubled police department back when he was that city's mayor. And this is how Booker responded to Biden.
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CORY BOOKER: We have a system right now that's broken. And if you want to compare records - and frankly, I'm shocked that you do - I am happy to do that. Because all of the problems that he is talking about that he created, I actually led the bill that got passed into law that reverses the damage that your bills that you were - frankly, to correct you, Mr. Vice President, you were bragging, calling it the Biden crime bill up till...
UNIDENTIFIED MODERATOR: Thank you, Senator.
GREENE: OK. Let's remember, Cory Booker's referring to the 1994 crime bill which Joe Biden helped to write. Asma, why was Biden's record on criminal justice such a point of contention throughout last night?
KHALID: Well, there's the political reason, and then there's the sort of real policy issues. So quickly, the politics of this is in major part because both Booker and Biden see the path to the nomination through black voters. And at this point in time, polls suggest Biden is rather popular among African American voters. But onto the policy. You know, this 1994 crime bill has been widely criticized in the years since it came into effect. It was seen to have a number of problematic side effects, most notably because it seems to have encouraged or led to the mass incarceration of African American men.
Younger activists today, they don't have the same vision of being tough on crime, which was a really popular notion when Joe Biden did lead sort of the - he was a champion for this bill and others at the time. You know, Biden has acknowledged that this bill did have unintended consequences. I heard him say that earlier this year at a meeting with Al Sharpton. But overall, there is this sense that some of the laws that Biden really championed did lead to really problematic consequences, specifically in the African American community.
GREENE: And Joel, I mean, when immigration was coming up, that is another issue where people were bringing up Biden's past and suggesting that his association with former President Obama's immigration policy could be seen as a liability. Why would that be? What would the argument be?
ROSE: Well, the Obama record on immigration is pretty mixed, right? On the one hand, he earned the nickname deporter-in-chief, especially in his first term. The administration deported millions of people, including more than a million deportations from the interior of the country, more than any other president. And immigrant advocates have not forgotten that. I mean, we heard a protester last night interrupt Joe Biden during a question about deportations. But the Obama legacy on immigration is complicated. He tried to pass comprehensive immigration reform that would have included a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country.
And when that failed, he famously created DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which has protected hundreds of thousands of immigrants who were brought to the country as children and shielded them from deportation. And Biden tried to defend those parts of the record last night.
GREENE: Can I - I want to finish with the same question to you both. Asma, you cover race in politics. Did you hear anything new on the debate stage last night, or new ideas? Anything? Or was it a lot of critique of sort of old ideas?
KHALID: It was definitely a lot of critique of old ideas. But, David, to me, this really shows the fissure in the Democratic Party around race, culture, immigration. I mean, I did a story just recently looking at the idea that the Democratic Party of today on immigration is so fundamentally different than even what we heard during the Obama administration days. And this shows that they've had a hard pivot to the left. And you could argue part of this is because of the folks voting in the Democratic primary electorate are different than they were during Biden's days.
GREENE: Joel, new ideas on immigration, or really a lot of looking at the past?
ROSE: I think there are some new ideas on immigration, and there's sort of a new tone. And this sort of level of criticism that was aimed at Joe Biden and his record during the Obama administration, that really stood out to me as something new.
GREENE: All right. Thank you both. That's NPR's Asma Khalid and Joel Rose talking about the debate last night and helping us understand the context of what was said. Many more debates to come. Thanks a lot, you two.
KHALID: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.