Editor's note: This story has been updated.
Calling Donald Trump’s immigration proposals “this close to ethnic cleansing” and criticizing Hillary Clinton for “speaking out of two sides of her mouth” on the issue, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley pushed hard on the need for immigration reform after eating lunch Thursday with a family of undocumented immigrants in East Austin.
Over a homemade lunch of chilaquiles and refried beans, O’Malley discussed various facets of the immigration experience with members of the Ramirez family, most of whom are undocumented immigrants. The lunch was arranged by a coalition of organizations who invite presidential candidates to meet, and eat with, immigrant families.
O'Malley, who served as Baltimore mayor from 1999 to 2007 followed by two terms as Maryland governor, has criticized Democratic opponents Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for not sufficiently addressing immigration issues. Although he's consistently placed third in the polls, O'Malley will have a chance to raise the issue at the Democratic debate on Saturday in Des Moines, Iowa.
O'Malley said he wanted to hear the family's stories to affirm his commitment to the "dignity of every individual."
"We should listen to our principles and the principles of our country," O'Malley said. "In our country, we should not be breaking families up and tearing families apart."
The conversation turned emotional as 13-year-old Abigail, the only one of the five Ramirez children born in the United States, described her fear that her parents would be deported.
“I live in constant fear of coming home from school and not being able to see my family, not knowing if I’m ever going to see them again,” she told O’Malley.
Her older sisters, Maria and Berenice Ramirez — both of whom are currently students at UT-Austin — talked about the emotional cost of being separated from their parents for long periods in their early childhood. When Maria eventually made it to the United States, at age 5, she’d barely gotten to know her father, she said.
“It was like, ‘I know I love you, and I know you’re my dad, but I don’t know you,’” Maria Ramirez said.
Maria and Berenice also talked with O’Malley about the high cost of applying to renew their status under the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals program, known as DACA. Under DACA, undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children can apply for employment authorization and relief from deportation proceedings. Renewing DACA status costs just over $400 per person, and must be done every two years, which has been difficult for the family, Berenice Ramirez said.
After lunch, O’Malley brought up DACA renewal fees with reporters.
“We need to find ways to bring down the cost of applying for executive protection,” he said, adding that cost relief would be part of his immigration proposals. O’Malley’s proposals also include extending deferred action on deportation to the “greatest possible” number of undocumented immigrants.
Asked about the legal challenges such plans might face, O’Malley said he wasn’t concerned. He acknowledged that President Barack Obama’s immigration actions have faced lawsuits and injunctions at every step of the way — including last week, when the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled to maintain a freeze on Obama’s immigration overhaul plans as their legality is debated in court.
“I think whatever the hang-up is right now, in terms of administrative procedure, I think all of that is curable,” O’Malley said. “I think it’s pretty clear, and most lawyers agree, that the president has the executive authority, especially in these matters.”
O’Malley also criticized the rhetoric of presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle, specifically mentioning Clinton’s use of the term “illegal immigrant” during an appearance earlier this week.
“If you want us to be a more compassionate nation, you need to speak to the goodness within us, and not the cynical game, saying one thing in front of one crowd — using the term 'illegal immigrants' — and then turning around and switching your messaging,” O’Malley said. Republican candidates like Trump are using “hateful, racist rhetoric," he added.
O'Malley emphasized another aspect of his immigration platform — that immigration reform will have major economic benefits — to a crowd of several hundred UT-Austin students Wednesday evening.
"In this beautiful, big-hearted state of Texas, how about we get 11 million of our neighbors out of the shadow economy and into the light?" he said.
Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.