Immigration Reform Absent in First Presidential Debate

by Christian Arana

The first presidential debate between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald J. Trump was notable for two specific reasons. First, it was the most watched presidential debate in American history. Approximately 84 million people tuned in as Clinton and Trump fought intensely over who is more qualified to serve as our nation’s next president. Second, as the candidates argued over distracting topics such as Secretary Clinton’s presidential looks and stamina, not a single question was asked on immigration reform.

One has to wonder how one of the most important public policy issues facing this country today is overlooked in a presidential debate.

For starters, considerable controversy has surrounded the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) – the nonprofit organization in charge of organizing these debates – for not selecting a Latino moderator.

CPD is governed by a 17-member board where only one person – Antonia Hernandez, President/CEO of the California Community Foundation – is of Latino background. This lack of diversity in the organization’s governing body is compounded by the fact that CPD employs a vague, subjective moderator-selection criteria which stipulates that moderators must have:

a) “familiarity with the candidates and the major issues of the presidential campaign;
b) extensive experience in live television broadcast news; and
c) an understanding that the debate should focus maximum time and attention on the candidates and their views.”

It does not take much effort to realize why the lack of a Latino moderator and the lack of a substantive discussion of immigration reform is a big deal in a setting like this.

Politically, there are approximately 27 million eligible Latino voters in this election with just about half of them representing millennials like myself. While immigration reform is not the top issue for Latinos, it is a pressing topic with real life consequences for the community and the nation as a whole.

Economically, immigration reform represents a tremendous opportunity for the country. Though the 11.3 million undocumented immigrants today already contribute $11.64 billion in state and local taxes each year, legalizing this population would increase GDP by $1.2 trillion over 10 years according to the Center for American Progress.

Socially, immigration reform matters greatly for families as well. According to the Pew Research Center, almost half of all undocumented adult immigrants (46%) are parents of minor children. When Latinos today are often residing in these “mixed-status” homes, where one family or more is an undocumented or legal immigrant, the passage of immigration reform, or lack thereof, greatly affects the stability of families and communities.

The immigration policies put forth by Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump deserve to be heard and asked by a moderator who can ask nuanced questions on this topic. Journalists like Maria Elena Salinas of Univision or Maria Hinojosa of NPR are more than capable of fulfilling these duties and who can give visibility to a community with growing political clout.

The next presidential debate will take place this Sunday, October 9 at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Martha Raddatz of ABC News and Anderson Cooper of CNN will take over the moderating duties. Will they address the candidates’ stances on immigration? Or will they miss another opportunity to speak on an important topic for Latinos and all Americans? I guess we will have to see.


Christian is an MPP candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy. Before coming to GSPP, Christian was a Senior Specialist at the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute.