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Democrats take Trump, GOP to task on divisive immigration rhetoric

With little daylight separating top Democratic candidates on immigration issues, the views expressed at the debate instead stood in stark contrast to the GOP.

Democratic candidates painted a stark picture for Latino voters on Tuesday night: If they want to see a pro-immigrant president in the White House, they will have to run far, far away from the Republican Party. 

Donald Trump was the clear target of choice in "Us vs. Them" strategy. When given a chance to dog-pile on the Republican presidential front-runner, candidates leapt at the chance. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley called Trump the “carnival barker of the Republican Party.” Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized candidates who "demonized hardworking immigrants" and "insulted" them.

There is little daylight that separates top Democratic candidates on immigration issues. The question was not whether candidates support a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, but whether those people qualify for the Affordable Care Act and instate college tuition. Instead, talk of immigration at Tuesday night's first Democratic debate underlined the gaping divide between the two parties on the issue.

“On this stage you didn’t hear anyone denigrate women. You didn’t hear anyone make racist comments about new Americans. You didn’t hear anyone speak ill because of a religious belief," O'Malley said in his closing statements.

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Immigration is also a point a some vulnerability for Sanders. He has in the past held a complicated, if not lukewarm, view of comprehensive immigration reform, having come out against legislative efforts in 2007. Though he now says he supports an immigration overhaul, he has expressed concerns that undocumented immigrants entering the workforce would depress wages, a theory that has been disproven.

"I didn't leave anybody at the altar. I voted against that piece of legislation because it had guest-worker provisions in it which the Southern Poverty Law Center talked about being semi-slavery," Sanders said Tuesday night. 

Tuesday’s debate was critical for candidates to win over the home crowd in Nevada, an early caucus state with a growing Latino population that has helped the it swing blue. It was also an opportunity for O’Malley to break out of the pack after polling nationwide at barely 1%. He had championed a fairly consistent, pro-immigrant stance throughout his two terms as governor of Maryland. It comes in contrast with Clinton, who has evolved over the years. She very notably stumbled during a debate back in 2007 when asked if she supported granting drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants.

When pressed on whether she agreed with O'Malley in extending the Affordable Care Act to undocumented immigrants and their children, Clinton said she was open to the idea of allowing people to buy into the exchanges, but would limit some of the subsidies.

"It raises so many issues. It would be very difficult to administer, it needs to be part of a comprehensive immigration reform, when we finally do get to it," Clinton said.

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The major question up in the air is what can feasibly be accomplished with a Republican-led Congress. A bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform bill passed in the Senate in 2013 but died a slow death in the House, even though it stood a chance of becoming law had the legislation been called up for a vote.

In lieu of the bill’s passage, President Obama vowed to act on his own and take as broad and sweeping action as possible. Those executive actions, unveiled last November, have since been tied up in the courts due to a lawsuit brought by 26 states. The plan would have offered a temporary status and protection from deportation to nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States. But it is likely the administration will have to appeal lower court rulings, and take the case all the way to the Supreme Court. Even if the court rules in favor of Obama’s measures, the decision would likely land just months before he leaves office.

Clinton, Sanders and O’Malley have all said that they would go even further than Obama, and include protections to the undocumented parents of DREAMers, immigrants brought to the U.S. as children. But the question is: If Obama couldn't pull it off, could they?