Bernie Sanders Faces Awkward Issues for His Liberal Allies: Immigration and Guns

He's running to the left of Hillary Clinton, but he's not emphasizing the immigration issue, and he hails from a state with no gun control laws.

Democratic Candidate For President Bernie Sanders Campaigns In Iowa

on June 12, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.

Photographer: Scott Olson

Senator Bernie Sanders is positioning himself as the furthest-left mainstream presidential candidate, but on Friday he ended up confronting two of the issues where he’s most at odds with liberals: immigration and guns.

Speaking to a gathering of Latino government officials, Sanders touted his support for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws, saying he backs a path to full citizenship for the undocumented as well as efforts to improve working conditions for immigrants.

“It is not acceptable to me and I think a growing majority of the American people that millions of folks in this country are working extremely hard but they are living in the shadows and that has got to end,” Sanders told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials convention, drawing a substantially smaller crowd than another hopeful for the Democratic presidential nomination, Hillary Clinton, did a day earlier.

Sanders talked up his support of the 2013 Senate immigration bill, which included a measure linking new immigration laws to heightened border security. On Friday, though, he said he opposes "tying immigration reform to the building of a border fence.”

Addressing the Immigration Issue

Sanders’ speech marked his first extended discussion of immigration, an issue that his campaign has downplayed. It was missing from his announcement speech in May, drawing the criticism of liberal commentators and at least one outspoken immigrant rights advocate. It was also missing during last week's visit to Marshalltown, an Iowa town with a sizable Latino population, when he faced sharp questions from an immigration advocate.

"I don’t know if he likes immigrants, because he doesn't seem to talk about immigrants. But sooner or later he’ll tell us. I hope he likes immigrants. I haven’t heard him say anything. He’s been kind of quiet and silent," Illinois Rep. Luis Gutiérrez said last week in an interview with Larry King. 

Gutiérrez is a Clinton supporter but told King that he’s also satisfied with former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s position on the immigration. 

During last summer’s border crisis, Clinton supported the Obama administration’s general approach, saying that children who had arrived in the United States "should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are.” The country, she said, needs to “send a clear message: just because your child gets across the border doesn’t mean your child gets to stay.”

O’Malley, though, bucked his party’s leader and said that the United States is not a "country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death.” Sensing Clinton’s vulnerability a year later, Sanders offered a critique. “It was wrong for some to suggest turning away the unaccompanied Central American children along the border,” he said.

Avoiding Gun Talk

Earlier Friday, speaking to a crowd of more than 700 that had gathered for a town hall discussion in a ballroom at the Treasure Island casino after RSVPs outpaced plans for a smaller space at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Sanders avoided talk of guns during his stump speech, even when discussing Wednesday’s mass shooting at a church in Charleston, S.C. 

When started taking questions, though, one audience member went for it, saying that she sees a need for tougher gun laws.

Sanders framed his response with his backstory, telling the woman: “I come from a state that has zero gun control and it also has a very low crime rate.” Even so, Vermonters "are more than aware that we have guns in the hands of people who should not have those guns. There are weapons out there that have nothing to do with hunting but are designed to kill people and kill them quickly. So those are issues that must be dealt with.”

Sanders first got to Congress in 1990 after beating Republican Rep. Peter Smith, who had voiced support for an assault weapons ban, drawing the ire of the NRA, which ended up campaigning against him, though not directly for Sanders. Once Sanders got to the House, he opposed the Brady Bill, in what one article at the time called an “especially incongruous” position. 

But Sanders’ explanation then and in the quarter-century since has been that he takes his stance on behalf of all Vermonters, many of whom see guns as essential to rural life.

Asked after his town hall by a reporter on how those issues could be dealt with, Sanders avoided getting specific.

“I think rural America needs to understand what urban America fears. Urban America needs to understand the culture of rural America,” he said. 

Pressed on what he would do as president, he said only: “I will talk about guns at some length but not right now.”

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