With immigration in the forefront of the presidential race, Bernie Sanders faces a potential obstacle at Saturday's Democratic debate: How to defend his concerns about guest-worker programs without alienating would-be supporters.

As an independent senator from Vermont in 2007, Sanders was among progressives who objected to the program in President George W. Bush's immigration bill. Now, while seeking the Democrats' nomination, he's been accused of leaving Latinos “at the altar” with his vote against the bill; attacked by rival Martin O'Malley; and accused by immigration advocates of employing GOP talking points.

Sanders has been working to shore up his reputation as a fighter for immigrant rights, by hiring prominent activists and putting out a detailed policy agenda. On Monday, Sanders promised to go beyond President Barack Obama’s executive actions to prevent the deportation of people who would have been protected by the Senate immigration bill in 2013, “dismantling inhumane deportation programs,” and more.

But it's Sanders's rhetoric against guest-worker programs for legal immigrants that has brought him trouble with the left. He now says his problems with such programs are rooted in humanitarian concerns; his warnings about immigrants taking Americans' jobs, however, have gotten more attention. Whether he can move past the issue may depend on whether he can re-frame it to Democrats—in a way that doesn't evoke the GOP they'll face next fall.

‘Lower Wages’

At an immigration forum in Las Vegas on Sunday, O’Malley accused the rivals he's trailing of only supporting an immigration overhaul to win votes. 

“When comprehensive immigration reform was up for a vote in the Congress, Senator Sanders went on Lou Dobbs’s show—are you familiar with Lou Dobbs?—and said that immigrants take our jobs and depress our wages,” O’Malley said. “Not only are those statements flat-out wrong, they actually harm the consensus.”

In that 2007 appearance, on CNN, Sanders said, “If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down, even lower than they are right now.”

“And as we know, the principle industries which hire the bulk of illegal aliens—that is construction, landscaping, leisure, hospitality—those are all industries in which wages are declining,” said Dobbs, an immigration hardliner who's now at Fox Business. “I don't hear that discussed on the Senate floor by the proponents of this amnesty legislation.”

“That's right,” Sanders said. “They have no good response.”

The Sanders campaign notes even immigration activists weren't universally sold on the bill. Arturo Carmona, ‎the campaign’s national Latino outreach director and southwest political director, said it would have created “slave-like conditions” for guest workers and “one of the worst pathways to citizenships that we’ve seen.” “It’s kind of an amnesia moment where people are just saying ‘He voted against it,’” Carmona said. “But who did he vote with? He voted with Latinos and with immigrant rights organizations.” 

America's Voice founder Frank Sharry, whose group supports a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, said while he doesn't agree with what Sanders said, he doesn't think the sentiment comes from an anti-immigrant perspective. 

Ultimately, Sharry said, Bush's bill failed for other reasons.

“We lost because Republicans would not support a bill—even though it was written to appeal to Republicans—because it had a legalization with a path to citizenship for 11 to 12 million undocumented immigrants,” Sharry said.

In other words, Republicans left Bush at the altar. “That’s why I don’t get all worked up like ‘Bernie Sanders screwed us,’” Sharry said. “Upon reflection, we really realized that we had made a mistake, a strategic mistake, in allowing progressives to get divided in hopes of getting Republican votes.”

‘Grossly Mistreated’

O'Malley's attack wasn't the first time Sanders’s guest-worker stance had met liberal criticism. In a July interview with Vox, Sanders called open borders a Koch brothers plot.

“What right-wing people in this country would love is an open border policy,” Sanders said. “Bring in all kinds of people to work for $2 or $3 an hour, that would be great for them.” 

“Those are the talking points that Republicans use to drive a wedge between Latinos and the African-American vote, saying, ‘They’re coming to take your jobs,’” responded Greisa Martinez of United We Dream.

What Sanders didn't talk about then was the humanitarian concerns surrounding guest-worker programs. He had before, writing a 2008 op-ed about visiting Florida tomato pickers that concluded U.S. consumers don't want their produce to be picked by workers “who are grossly mistreated, underpaid, and in some case even kept in chains.” Later that year, a Senate panel on which Sanders served held a hearing on the tomato pickers' conditions.

Mary Bauer of the Legal Aid Justice Center, who testified at the hearing, explained the bind such workers may find themselves in: “When they get to the United States, if the employment is less than ideal, if it’s not what was promised, they can’t go work anywhere else, and as a practical matter they can’t go home because they owe a huge amount of money they’ll never be able to pay back,” she said in an interview. 

In 2013, Sanders voted for the new immigration bill, which included a more regulated guest-worker program negotiated by two groups on opposite sides of the debate: the AFL-CIO, which opposed the 2007 bill, and U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

Daniel Costa, director of immigration law and policy research at the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, said the backlash to Sanders's past comments highlighted the candidate's need to refine his rhetoric. When Sanders talks about immigration leading to lower wages, he's talking specifically about low-wage guest-worker programs, Costa said, and “it’s hard to get that context in a sound bite.”

During Democrats' last debate on Oct. 13, Sanders tried to do just that. CNN's Juan Carlos Lopez asked Sanders why Latinos should trust him on immigration when he voted against the 2007 bill and “left them at the altar.”

Sanders replied:

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. Guest workers are coming in, they're working under terrible conditions, but if they stand up for their rights, they're thrown out of the country. I was not the only progressive to vote against that legislation for that reason. Tom Harkin, a very good friend of Hillary Clinton's and mine, one of the leading labor advocates, also voted against that.

That didn’t end the discussion. “Tom Harkin isn’t running for president,” Lopez said. “You are.”

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