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News Brief: Democratic Debates, 'Pardon In Place,' Supreme Court


This morning we are halfway through the first primary debate between Democrats who hope to unseat President Trump in 2020.


Yeah. The first 10 candidates who took stage on the first night showed some differences with each other and with the president, of course. It is a chance just to get used to the voices of Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro.


JAY INSLEE: The biggest threat to the security of the United States is Donald Trump.

TULSI GABBARD: He needs to get back into the Iran nuclear deal and swallow his pride. Put the American people first.

JULIAN CASTRO: On January 20, 2021, we'll say adios to Donald Trump.

INSKEEP: So the Democrats would like, although Democratic voters face big choices about who they think can win and also which policies they would favor.

KING: All right. NPR's Scott Detrow is in Miami covering the debates.

Good morning, Scott.


KING: So the big question going into this debate was, would any of these candidates have one of those special breakout moments? Did any of them?

DETROW: You know, I don't think there was one clear-cut star of the night. We had expected Elizabeth Warren to really dominate the conversation all night, and that didn't quite happen. A few names that I think really did jump out a little bit though - Julian Castro. He has not gotten a ton of attention. But he talked a lot about immigration, a lot about social justice issues. And he was in the middle of a lot of the bigger exchanges of the night.

Flip side, Beto O'Rourke, I think, was one of those candidates who really needed a big night to get some momentum back and that did not quite happen. Cory Booker - similar situation, he got the most airtime and questions. He was one of the most talked about candidates on Twitter, and he was the most Googled. So on the things we've got some data for, Cory Booker had a good night.

KING: OK. So these early debates are meant to get voters familiar with where the candidates stand on the issues. What were the big issues last night?

DETROW: Yeah. This was a real clear illustration of how much the campaign has been a real race to the left. Who can be the most progressive candidate? One key moment - health care, one of the few issues where Elizabeth Warren is not the one setting the progressive standard for the field. She wants "Medicare for All" but not that right-off-the-bat elimination of private health insurance. So one of the moderators asked, show of hands, who would get rid of private health insurance? It was really notable, Elizabeth Warren's hand shot straight up.


ELIZABETH WARREN: Medicare for All solves that problem. And I understand there are a lot of politicians who say, oh, it's just not possible. We just can't do it, it's - have a lot of political reasons for this. What they're really telling you is they just won't fight for it.

DETROW: Immigration - another big issue where candidates tacked to the left - a lot of talk about what's happening in the border right now, how they would stop President Trump's policies, also a heated moment between Castro and O'Rourke on the idea of decriminalizing border crossings.


CASTRO: I'm talking about...

BETO O'ROURKE: But I want to make sure...

CASTRO: I'm talking about everybody else.

O'ROURKE: I want to make sure they're treated with respect.

CASTRO: I'm still talking about everybody else.

O'ROURKE: But you're looking at just one small part of this. I'm talking about a comprehensive rewrite of our immigration laws...

CASTRO: That's not true.

O'ROURKE: ...And if we do that...

DETROW: So broadly speaking, this was a question of whether to treat illegal crossings as a criminal charge - as it currently stands - or a civil penalty. Castro wants to make that shift, and O'Rourke does not.

KING: And Castro - what I thought was so interesting, Castro was talking in specifics about Section 1325, which is the thing that makes it criminal. But I thought, most people don't know what 1325 is, but maybe that was Castro's point - let's have them figure out. All right, so tonight is round two. What are you looking for tonight, Scott?

DETROW: A lot of the bigger names are on stage, mostly former Vice President Joe Biden. You know, of the top five polling candidates in the race, only Elizbeth Warren was on the stage last night. So I'm interested to see how the dynamic is between all of them, particularly between Biden and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who have both really been criticizing each other's world view lately.

KING: NPR's Scott Detrow.

Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you.


KING: There is a U.S. government program that protects some undocumented people from being deported. Now that program may be on its way out.

INSKEEP: And immigration advocates are warning that it could create chaos for many people in the military. This program aims to ensure that if an American is on active duty in the U.S. military, they don't have to be distracted by news that one of their family members is being deported. The Trump administration may be scaling back those protections.

KING: We are learning about this through exclusive reporting from Franco Ordoñez. He covers the White House for NPR. He's in studio.

Good morning, Franco.


KING: All right, so I imagine a lot of our listeners just won't know what this program is. Can you describe it?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's called - it's a program called parole in place. It's essentially a temporary protection for immigrant families of those who are in active duty in the military. As Steve pointed out, if someone is fighting overseas, say, in Afghanistan, you really don't want them distracted. You don't want them worried about a spouse in the United States being deported. It does - I should say, it only applies to certain cases - those who arrived legally. And you cannot change your status. If you overstay a visa, for example, you can't - this does not apply. It actually started under George W. Bush. And it was just an idea to make it a little bit easier for these troops fighting overseas.

KING: So are these protections going to go away altogether? And I guess a very important question, for people who have already got the protection, the parole in place, are they grandfathered in?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, we don't know exactly how far they're going to go back. It is - they - I'm told they're going to be scaled back. The lawyers who have worked with these active duty family members have been told that it will be scaled back. Being terminated is a term that's been reported to me, but it may still be provided under very rare cases. As to the point of whether it will be grandfathered, that is still an open question. It is definitely a concern of these families. But the expectation is at least those who will get it will still be able to keep it. That is why so many of these lawyers are racing to get it in before it is terminated.

INSKEEP: And I feel obliged to just point out this is not a program that probably affects nobody - right? - because there are a lot of immigrants who end up serving in the military or children of immigrants who end up serving in the United States military. New citizens in this country protect the country, and they're in immigrant communities, where they may well be connected to somebody who's not properly documented.

ORDOÑEZ: No doubt. Immigration has been part of the military basically since day one. They are weaved into the fabric. As you note, the United States recruits immigrants. They recruit spouses of immigrants. They recruit the children of immigrants. Nearly 130,000 immigrants have been naturalized from over 30 foreign countries, actually, since October, 1, 2001...

INSKEEP: They even often want the language specialties and other kinds of knowledge.

ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely.

KING: So based on your reporting, what do we know about when this program could actually be withdrawn? Do we have any clue?

ORDOÑEZ: So what we're told is that they're hearing that it could be terminated as early as next month. That's why I mentioned that there is a race from lawyers to get their applications to get done. I will say that word really is just starting to get out in the immigration lawyer community. And, really, there is a race to get this happen so that their clients can be protected.

KING: You're going to keep covering this one?

ORDOÑEZ: Absolutely.

KING: NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.


KING: All right. Today we are expecting rulings from the Supreme Court on two major issues.

INSKEEP: And these are the two questions. Can politicians draw legislative district maps to benefit their own party? And also, can the government ask who is a citizen on the next census? - lot of political sensitivities here. The Trump administration added a citizenship question to the 2020 census, and a number of lower courts ruled against it. And then on gerrymandering, justices decide two cases - one in a Democratic Maryland district and another in a Republican district in North Carolina.

KING: NPR senior editor Ron Elving is watching the court closely.

Hey, Ron.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: All right, let's start with the gerrymandering cases first. This is always such a complex issue. What might potential decisions by the court mean for political redistricting and for people who are voting?

ELVING: If the court upholds the practice of partisan gerrymandering you described, which allows a ruling party to dominate out of proportion to its vote share in a state, then voters shouldn't expect to see any changes at all just more of the same partisan map-making that protects incumbents and preserves the existing power arrangements in each state. But if the court decides to end its longstanding tolerance for this sort of thing, put limits on it, voters in Maryland might well see another seat or two suddenly become competitive for Republicans. And voters in North Carolina might see as many as half the seats become competitive for Democrats. And voters in other states might see the next round of redistricting after 2020 conducted on a more even-handed basis.

KING: So potentially some big cases - or some big changes coming depending on how these cases are decided. Ron, the other big issue is whether the United States Census can ask people about their citizenship status. Advocates for immigrants' rights have recently been pushing for the Supreme Court to delay its decision until the fall, even though the Census is approaching quickly. What is the argument for a delay here?

ELVING: New and rather remarkable evidence has surfaced that casts doubt on the rationale for adding this question. The evidence emerged from the laptop of a political consultant who is now deceased. And it indicates that the citizenship question did not have its origin in a request from the Justice Department as we were told, that it was not about enforcing voting rights laws as we were told. But that question was added by Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. And it was added as part of a strategy to restrict the count of Hispanics in 2020 and other immigrants as well and restrain the influence of Hispanics in American politics in general. So immigration advocates would like to see this case go back to lower courts for reconsideration in the light of this evidence before the Supreme Court weighs in.

KING: Once these rulings come down today, the Supreme Court will have decided about two dozen cases in the past two weeks. What do their recent decisions tell us about this Supreme Court?

ELVING: Mostly that the Conservatives are in control, and they usually prevail. But Chief Justice Roberts has taken a couple of opportunities to cross the aisle, as it were, to listen to the arguments from the other side - most especially from Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Elena Kagan in most recent days. We'll see how far that willingness goes in the rulings later today and in the years ahead.

KING: NPR's Ron Elving reporting on two important decisions by the Supreme Court that are expected to come down today.

Ron, thank you so much.

ELVING: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUPITER JAX'S "ROAD RAGE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.