It was the closest Senator Bernie Sanders had come to getting heckled during his trip to Iowa. As Sanders was leaving a town hall meeting in Marshalltown, Iowa, on Saturday, Isaac Medina, a 19-year-old University of Iowa sophomore, followed the Democratic presidential candidate out of the building with a question he hadn’t been able to ask during the question-and-answer session: What was Sanders going to do about immigration?
Marshalltown has a sizable Hispanic population—24.1 percent, compared to the statewide average of 5 percent, according to the 2010 census—and has seen immigration raids tear families apart. Yet Sanders had held his event at the local chapter of the United Automobile Workers, signaling his ties to unions without focusing on immigration policy changes during his abbreviated stump speech.
Medina had noticed, and the two had a brief conversation outside. Sanders said he supports comprehensive immigration reform and bringing people out of the shadows.
“Can you say that publicly?” Medina said.
“I’ve said it—I say it all of the time,” Sanders replied.
“I was at the University of Iowa and I had the pleasure to meet you and you declined questions on immigration as well,” Medina said, referring to Sanders’s visit in March.
“No, I didn’t decline questions,” Sanders said, adding that he can’t answer 50 questions a day.
Sanders’s stump speech, which focuses on income inequality and the power of what he calls the “billionaire class,” was well received in Marshalltown, just as it had been in Des Moines the night before. But his exchange with Medina highlights a potential weak spot in his campaign: Immigration hasn't been a major part of his platform, and 82 percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucus-goers said in a Bloomberg Politics/Des Moines Register poll in May that they want candidates to spend a lot of time talking about the issue.
After Sanders's first formal rally in Burlington, Vermont, last month, observers noted he didn't mention immigration or policing issues. On Thursday, Representative Luis Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat and Hillary Clinton supporter, said he didn’t know if “the socialist—I can’t remember his name—from Vermont...likes immigrants” because he hadn’t heard Sanders talking about them. On Friday, Politico noted that Sanders had added a section on the issue to his stump speech in Des Moines.
“We need a rational immigration process, not the Republican alternatives of self deportation or some other draconian non-solution,” Sanders said Friday, adding that he supported President Barack Obama’s efforts to do through executive action what Congress hasn’t done legislatively.
In Marshalltown, the town hall focused on economic issues, though one question hinted at the town’s immigrant population and its struggles. Sue Cahill, a local teacher, said her school was 90 percent minority and 92 percent of its students received free or reduced-price school lunches. She wanted to know what Sanders would do to make sure students are more than just test scores.
“How can we make sure…we’re looking at the whole student, their mental health issues, the issues of how they deal with a parent who’s been deported, issues of going—not sure where they’re going to sleep that night?” she asked.
Sanders said that the U.S. needs to improve the economy so parents earn more; create a better child-care system; fund public education; and end No Child Left Behind, the George W. Bush-era program criticized for too heavily emphasizing test scores.
“Why would you come to Marshalltown and not talk about immigration reform?” Medina said in an interview after the event. “I don’t see anything that would detract from his policies, or I don’t see any drawbacks, especially in Marshalltown. What I would ask of Senator Sanders is that he…enlightens us more on his position.”
Sanders spokesman Michael Briggs said the candidate has consistently made an effort to take questions from his audiences. “Not all candidates do that, but Bernie enjoys the discussions,” Briggs said in an e-mail. “Unfortunately, there almost always are more people with questions than there is time to address them all. That was the case in Marshalltown.”
Sanders did discuss immigration on Friday during his town hall at Drake University, Briggs added, and he will be discussing the issue again on June 19 when he attends a meeting of Latino elected officials in Nevada.
“The son of an immigrant, he has been involved in efforts in Congress to enact immigration reform and provide a path to citizenship for some 12 million people living in the United States,” Briggs said.
For Medina's part, he said that he initially preferred Sanders to Clinton, but is now giving former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley another look. On Thursday, Medina had attended O’Malley’s Marshalltown rally and said he had given a much more extensive answer on immigration, framing it as an economic issue.
Since announcing his presidential campaign last month, O’Malley has been aggressively reaching out to the Hispanic community in a way that suggests he sees an opening for himself on immigration issues. Earlier this month, during a talk with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, O’Malley emphasized his record in Maryland, where he signed the DREAM Act to grant in-state tuition rates to undocumented people brought into the country as children.
“Whoever reaches to the Latino community and makes their stance on immigration reform and specifics unequivocally clear to the American people...the Hispanic demographic’s gonna take note of that,” Medina said.