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(Photo Credit: Alfaz Sayed via Unsplash)

During last night’s final presidential debate, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden sparred in all of the expected ways—over the handling of the COVID-19 crisis, alleged relationships with Russia, taxes, etc.— but it was an unexpected conversation about immigration that led to a rare moment of honesty from Trump. 

Debate moderator Kristen Welker asked Trump whether his administration would reunite the hundreds of migrant children who remain separated from their families. News reports earlier this week revealed that of the more than 5,000 children who were separated at the U.S.-Mexico border as part of the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, 545 have yet to be reunited with their parents. 

“Let me just say. They built cages,” Trump said of Biden and the Obama administration, after some initial diversions about the border wall, coyotes, and cartels. “You know, they used to say I built the cages. And then they had a picture in the newspaper. There was a picture of these horrible cages and they said, ‘Look at these cages, President Trump built them.’ And then it was determined they were built in 2014. That was him.” 

Trump was not lying about the photos. As the horror of his family separation policy unfolded, Obama-era photos of caged migrant children and a “special prison bus for babies” circulated online and were falsely attributed to the Trump administration. (It’s important to note here that Trump has consistently lied about his family separation policy, falsely and repeatedly claiming his administration was simply adhering to an existing “law.”)

Over the last several years, Americans nationwide have come to recognize our immigration system as deeply unjust, largely because of the Trump administration’s never-ending stream of inhumane, deeply punitive, and often illegal immigration policies. The problem, however, is that the everyday horrors of the system are not Trumpian aberrations. In fact, it has been Democratic administrations who have greatly contributed to the system we have today, including the expansion of the detention system where widespread sexual assault, abuse, medical neglect, forced labor, and in-custody deaths are normalized conditions

In writing about the “sensationalist turn in liberal immigration discourse,” investigative immigration reporter Felipe De La Hoz wrote that the phrase “kids in cages” is “the go-to cudgel for people who want to perform shock at the brutality of the [Trump] administration’s immigration policies without quite knowing what those are.” What was shameful about the immigration portion of last night’s debate was that the same flattened discourse played out between two men who not only know better, but who used “kids in cages” to deflect responsibility for the role their administrations have played in brutalizing undocumented immigrants. 

The Trump administration’s attacks on all immigrant communities have been well-documented. In Trump’s America, it is harder to become a citizen, asylum has effectively ended, refugees have virtually been cut off, travel has been banned from African and Muslim-majority countries, and because of the administration’s public charge rule, thousands of low-income children have not received critical support during the pandemic because their immigrant parents fear retribution. This doesn’t even include the attacks on undocumented immigrants with established roots in the United States, an estimated 11 million of whom are now being forced to navigate Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) ability to fast-track their deportations

The thing is, attacks on immigrant communities under former President Barack Obama’s administration were also well-documented: the expansion of the detention system that included family detention, the unprecedented militarization of the border, the mass deportations, the targeting of asylum seekers, the detention of children in military facilities. For the eight years that Obama and Biden were in the White House, immigrant communities very publicly fought for their lives. But, as many have remarked, it was like screaming into a void. 

During the final presidential debate, when Biden was asked to account for the Obama administration’s record number of deportations, the former vice president said, “We made a mistake.” That is certainly one way to put it. The Obama administration’s mistakes were made at the cost of millions of people’s lives—people who were permanently separated from their families; people who were abused or died in detention; people who were deported to their deaths. 

At its core, immigration is a human rights issue, but in the United States it is framed as deeply partisan. The divisive rhetoric is nonsensical given just how aligned Democrats and Republicans are in their practice of funneling extensive resources to federal immigration agencies, militarizing the border, and expanding detention and deportation. 

Biden’s promise to create a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants should not lull blue wave liberals into believing that a Biden presidency will leave them with nothing to tweet about. Instead, it should serve as a red flag. That was the promise President Obama made before he deported millions of people. 

White liberals didn’t learn anything about immigration from the Obama administration. If this same segment of the population fails to tweet or take to the streets or engage in other immigration “activism” under a Biden administration, it is not because abuses stopped happening; it’s because under a Democratic administration they’ve once again given themselves permission not to care. 

Tina Vásquez is the editor-at-large at Prism. She covers gender justice, workers' rights, and immigration. Follow her on Twitter @TheTinaVasquez.