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Commentary: Latino Audience Shines in Democrat Town Hall Discussion

The audience was the star of last night’s Democrat town hall discussion in Las Vegas, Nevada.

The audience was the star of last night’s Democrat town hall discussion in Las Vegas, Nevada. With Bernie Sanders cutting into Hillary Clinton’s lead in the polls, it was important for the candidates to leave voters with a favorable impression going into the Nevada caucus on Saturday. But it was Nevada’s residents who left the town hall having given the best impression.

Most notable during the event was the diversity of the audience. Nevada is almost 28 percent Latino and just over 51 percent non-Hispanic white, which means the state is approaching majority-minority status, where the majority of the residents are members of an ethnic or racial minority group. It was not surprising to see such a mixed audience, but after months of events in Iowa and New Hampshire where the populations are over 90 percent non-minority, one can get the wrong impression about the diversity of the country, which is really closer to 60 percent non-minority.

Democratic presidential candidate and former Secr of State Hillary Clinton appears during the "MSNBC and Telemundo Clinton-Sanders Town Hall" on Thursday, February 18, 2016 at the KMA Event Center in Las Vegas.MSNBC / Virginia Sherwood/MSNBC

The format of the town hall began with each candidate answering questions from the moderators,MSNBC and Telemundo anchor José Díaz-Balart and NBC/MSNBC and "Meet the Press" anchor Chuck Todd. Each candidate was then asked a series of questions by audience members. The questions were in both English and Spanish, whichever the audience member preferred, and Díaz-Balart was able to handle the question seamlessly with his own quick translation to the candidates.

It has been rare to have Latinos ask questions during the debates and town hall discussions without the networks distilling Latino politics down to simple discussions about immigrant deportations and border walls. These exchanges may leave the audience with the wrong impression about the complexity of the Latino electorate. For this reason alone, the biggest beneficiaries of Thursday night’s debate were the American people watching. If you were watching below are a few terms you perhaps have not heard before.

RELATED: Clinton, Sanders Vie for Nevada Caucus Votes At Town Hall

You may have heard a woman speaking about her “mixed-status” household. The audience member, Rhonda, told Sanders that she was an American citizen, as is her daughter, but that her husband of 18 years was removed from the country and deported to Mexico. According to Pew Hispanic Research, 85 percent of unauthorized immigrants have lived in the United States for five years or more. This usually means that they have managed to get on with life, despite their immigration status. Indeed, about 46 percent of unauthorized immigrants have children, often with partners who are citizens. In total, over 9 million people live with “mixed-status” families that include one undocumented adult and at least one U.S.-born child.

The inability of our immigration system to adjust to the changing lives of immigrants wreaks havoc on ordinary members of the country, and the American immigration system has been quite efficient at encouraging labor to move into the country, but brutally inefficient in adjusting to family situations of immigrants.

Democratic presidential candidate and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders appears during the "MSNBC and Telemundo Clinton-Sanders Town Hall" on Thursday, February 18, 2016 at the KMA Event Center in Las Vegas.MSNBC / Virginia Sherwood/MSNBC

If you were watching Thursday night’s debate, another new term you may have heard is the “3/10-year bar”. This is a provision in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that bans immigrants from re-entering the country for three years if they have been in the country illegally for six to twelve months.

If the immigrant has been illegally present in the United States for over one year then he or she cannot reenter the country for ten years. If you have a “mixed-status” family, the 3/10-year bar provision presents a brutal gamble for parents who wish to stay with the families.

You may have also learned from the debate that not only can non-citizens join the U.S. military, but after serving, veterans or their family members can still be deported. When asked about the mixed-status family, Sanders described a situation where the wife of a veteran was deported.

Finally, there were questions about DACA and DAPA. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) is an executive guideline by the President to defer any deportation orders of immigrant young adults who came to the country as children or teens. DAPA, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans, extends deferred status to those parents of DACA recipients. Since these temporary reprieves from deportation are directed by the president, the next person elected as president has the full discretion to end DACA status.

The audience members peppered the candidates with specific questions on policy, from real estate, to the projected efficiency and innovation of college education, to questions about regrets over past positions. Clinton was asked if she regretted that she once supported a definition of marriage that did not include gay couples. Clinton was asked about her flip-flopping of her position on driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, and Bernie was asked why he did not support the immigration reform act that was before Congress in 2007. Several times the candidates tried to generalize their way out of directly answering the questions and were asked follow-up questions by the audience member if they were not satisfied with the answer.

By asking Sanders and Clinton questions stemming from their own experiences, the diverse audience members at the debate challenged the candidates to be specific on complex issues that are not merely academic, but that have real day-to-day impact on people's lives.

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