PHILADELPHIA—One of the loudest and most sustained applause lines on the final day of the Netroots Nation conference came when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) pledged to investigate potential crimes committed against immigrants in the United States if she were in the White House.
“To anyone out there who is working in this system,” she said to a packed ballroom inside the Pennsylvania Convention Center on Saturday. “Understand, you abuse immigrants, you physically abuse immigrants, you sexually abuse immigrants, you fail to get the medical care that they need, you break the law of the United States of America,” Warren said to a thunderous ovation.
“And Donald Trump may be willing to look the other way, but President Elizabeth Warren will not. On my first day, I will empower a commission in the Department of Justice to investigate crimes committed by the United States against immigrants,” the Massachusetts Democrat told the presidential forum.
This promise was part of a broader immigration platform the 2020 contender unveiled this past week, but the moment arrived less than a day before planned raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement are expected to take place in 10 major cities throughout the country. Though Philadelphia is not among the cities on that list, it is wedged about 100 miles between Baltimore and New York, respectively, where the raids are supposed to take place. And the conversation around the Trump administration’s immigration policies, which have become hallmarks of its cruelty to Democrats, dominated the closing day of Netroots.
The yearly progressive activist conference, which drew some 4,000 registered attendees according to event organizers, featured two marquee keynote addresses on Saturday, where presidential candidates and members of Congress alike decried the administration’s family separation policy, conditions in detention facilities at the border and the planned raids.
“We’re going to look back at this moment as a very, very dark time,” Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) said during a morning panel featuring her and other progressive freshmen Reps. Deb Haaland (D-NM), Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA). “We’re going to look back and say what did we do as a nation to push against this? This is a whole generation of children that will never forget what our nation did to them.”
Omar, Tlaib and Pressley, along with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), have been at the center of an internal party spat within the House Democratic caucus that has spilled out into public view on Twitter and prompted criticism from leadership. The feuding all began last month when the small group of progressives criticized Democrats who voted for a recent emergency funding bill that sent additional funds to the border. On Saturday, that group—referred to lovingly at Netroots as “the Squad”—seemed more interested in recentering the conversation on conditions at the border than using the forum for overt swipes at leadership.
“If you flew here and there was a baby crying on that plane, you wouldn’t ask where that baby was from, you wouldn’t ask if it was sick, you wouldn’t ask its name but everyone on the plane offers advice to lull, to comfort and to quiet that child,” Pressley said at one point, her voice rising to a roar. “These are all our children and we should be doing the same damn thing.”
On Friday night, Vice President Mike Pence visited a migrant detention center in McAllen, Texas, where some 400 men were reportedly caged without room for them to lie down and telling reporters they wanted food and to brush their teeth. Against that backdrop, Netroots, which often plays host to confrontational moments from audience members to presidential candidates and panelists alike, was largely copacetic on Saturday.
Amid the shouts of “Warren, Warren, Warren” and the questions from activists during the presidential forum, there was little interruption or push for the presidential contenders to back the abolition of ICE, a progressive goal that has somewhat disappeared from the 2020 trail.
Warren, the overwhelming favorite of the four candidates in attendance who had been coming to the conference for years, was briefly confronted by a small group of protesters bearing a sign which read “Legalize 11 Million” and “Reunify the Families.” She calmly responded “I’m already there,” and launched into an explanation of her plan.
Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, who early on released one of the most robust immigration plans and has led on the issue of decriminalizing border crossings, said on Saturday, “Instead of breaking up families, we should break up ICE.”
The common enemy in Trump and his policies may have been a major contributor to the largely calm environment of the day, but Markos Moulitsas, the founder and publisher of the progressive website Daily Kos, attributed it to another reason as well: candidates in the field had moved left enough that they were meeting a number of activists’ demands in their policies already.
“There was nobody on stage today that was actively hostile to any of the things we actually care about as a community,” he said in a brief interview. “There was a time when people saw us as these crazy outliers in politics that we were so far left.”
But with Trump in office and ICE raids planned, that might not be the case for Democrats any more.