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Election 2020

The border, the refugee crisis, and other topics to watch for in the Democratic debates

Four crucial questions for the candidates.

On July 30 and 31, Democratic candidates for president will take the stage in Detroit for the second round of primary debates. Since the candidates last met, President Trump has continued to put obstacles in the way of families seeking safety at the United States border, and shocking reports have emerged that the administration is considering shutting the door on all refugees next year. 

The first round of debates in June featured some important exchanges on U.S. asylum policy, but there was little to no discussion on other key issues regarding people affected by persecution and violence. Below are the top four questions we’ll be looking for answers to in the upcoming debates. You can also click here to download our comprehensive viewer’s guide.

Asylum seekers and the border 

Will candidates condemn the Trump administration’s new third country bar on asylum seekers and proposals to ban Guatemalans from the U.S.?

Why is it important? 

The Trump administration recently announced a policy that would block Central Americans and others from claiming asylum if they cross through a “third country” on their way to the U.S. southern border. A “third country” is a nation an asylum seeker travels through after leaving their country of origin. Since most asylum seekers currently travel through Mexico on their way to the U.S., this would effectively slam the door on people fleeing persecution with almost no exceptions. Mexico itself is not a safe place for many asylum seekers to stay: a recent IRC survey conducted in shelters in the country revealed asylum-seeking families' fears of kidnapping, gang recruitment and violence.

Media outlets have reported that the Trump administration threatened Guatemala with economic sanctions and a travel ban as a means of forcing that country to sign what is known as a “Safe Third Country” agreement to prevent anyone who transits through Guatemala from applying for asylum in the U.S. This agreement would effectively stop most people from El Salvador and Honduras from applying for protection. All three Central American countries are dealing with levels of violence akin to those in the deadliest war zones in the world.


Will candidates condemn reports that the administration is seriously considering admitting zero refugees next year? Will they mention the GRACE Act and its role in preserving America’s legacy of welcome?

Why is it important?

Right now, 70 million people have been forced to flee their homes, more than at any other time in modern history. Among them are nearly 25.9 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18. The Trump administration is reportedly considering slashing refugee admissions to zero next year.

Efforts are being made to restore America’s legacy of welcome. Introduced by Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, a new bill called the GRACE Act would set the minimum annual refugee admissions goal at 95,000, which has been the average refugee admissions goal for the past four decades. 

So far, Senators Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Bernie Sanders have co-sponsored the bill. Although she is not yet a co-sponsor, Senator Elizabeth Warren announced earlier this month that if elected, she would seek to admit 125,000 refugees in her first year in office and increase that level over the course of her presidency.

Temporary Protected Status

Will candidates ensure that the tens of thousands of people who rely on Temporary Protected Status will not be separated from their U.S. citizen children and other family members and forced back to unsafe situations in their countries of origin?

Why is it important?

Temporary Protected Status, or TPS, is a critical protection tool used to safeguard foreign nationals living in the U.S. from being forced to return to unsafe conditions, such as conflict and natural disasters, in their home countries. Although nearly half a million people have benefitted from TPS since it was established by Congress in 1990, the Trump administration has been systematically dismantling this crucial program. The administration terminated TPS for Haiti, refused to designate Venezuela for TPS despite growing violence and instability there, and is currently considering ending TPS for Syria, where ongoing conflict has displaced tens of thousands of people in recent weeks alone.


Will candidates advocate for a unilateral, unconditional ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?

Why is it important?

After more than four years of war, Yemen is facing one of the largest humanitarian crises of our time. Two-thirds of the population is at risk of starvation. According to UNICEF, a Yemeni child dies every ten minutes from entirely preventable causes. 

At the first debate, Senator Sanders described the situation in Yemen as the “most horrific humanitarian disaster on Earth,” and mentioned his support for the unprecedented bipartisan vote in the Senate to withdraw U.S. military support to the conflict. This vote increased pressure on the warring parties and pushed them towards a localized ceasefire agreement. 

Rather than double down on diplomacy, the administration has declared an “emergency” to bypass Congress and resume billions of dollars in arms sales. Just last week, President Trump vetoed three bipartisan resolutions that would have blocked arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, key parties to this brutal and often lawless conflict.