Clinton’s Immigration Challenge: Proving She’s Not Obama

The Democratic nominee has pledged to go further to help immigrants than the current president.

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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton talks to an undocumented farm worker, Maria Licea, 49, and her 9-year-old daughter Jasmin Aguilar on June 4, 2016, in Sylmar, California.

Photographer: Irfan Khan/LA Times via Getty Images

For immigration reform activists, the presidential contest currently underway is not a hard call. “This election presents two clear choices: one that wants to deport me, and my mother and other people back to their deaths, and another one that is open to conversation, that is acknowledging the immigrant community,” said Greisa Martinez, the advocacy director for United We Dream Action.

Instead of proving she would be a better ally to activists than Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton is working to show she'll be a more successful advocate than President Barack Obama. While activists are overwhelmingly supporting Clinton and other Democrats this November, they are also looking ahead to the next immigration reform legislation fight and hoping to avoid the disappointments of the last eight years. “The big challenge for Hillary Clinton is not being President Obama to Latinos and immigrants in this country,” Martinez said.

As a candidate, Obama promised he would introduce a comprehensive immigration bill within his first year in office. Instead, he chose to invest his political capital largely in the Affordable Care Act, and immigration reform was put on the back burner while deportations continued. In 2013, it looked as if immigration reform legislation had a chance with the bipartisan Gang of Eight bill—but ultimately John Boehner, then speaker of the House, refused to bring it up for a vote.

Instead, Obama has been forced to turn to executive actions, which could be undone if Trump wins the nomination. In June 2012 he announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, program that shields people brought into the country illegally as children from deportation and grants them work permits. But a similar program for the parents of U.S. residents was blocked by the Supreme Court in June. 

Under different circumstances, Democrats would have been concerned about exciting and motivating Latino voters after a disappointing eight years of deportations and failed legislation. But Trump's rise to prominence—fueled by nativist calls for mass deportations and a border wall—has drastically raised the stakes. Still, activists insist Clinton has work to do to earn their full confidence.

Two weeks ago United We Dream Action launched an online petition calling on Clinton take some kind of executive action during her first 100 days in office to shield undocumented immigrants from deportations. Clinton has already promised to introduce comprehensive immigration reform legislation within her first 100 days, as well as said she would go further than Obama on granting protections for undocumented immigrants through executive action.

“The reality of when then candidate Obama promised that he would deliver immigration reform—it hit him like a ton of bricks that he couldn’t do that for a lot of reasons: the economy, health care, and other priorities,” said Angela Maria Kelley, the executive director of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “But that still stung the community and it stuck around for a while. And so I think that she’s wisely, in her word choice, saying this will be a priority of hers.”

During the campaign, Clinton has spoken out against several policies of the Obama administration, including its use of private family detention centers and new mass deportation raids. When news broke in May that the Obama administration planned to speed up the deportations of Central American families who were denied asylum, Clinton was one of several Democrats who criticized the move. “I’m against large-scale raids that tear families apart and sow fear in communities,” Clinton said in a statement.

Clinton's campaign has also broken with the Obama administration on granting access to the Affordable Care Act to undocumented families. Currently, it is illegal for undocumented immigrants to buy insurance plans or receive premium tax breaks through the health care law's marketplace. In March, Clinton said she supports granting undocumented families access to unsubsidized plans, and their access to subsidies should be worked out in comprehensive immigration reform legislation. 

But while Obama’s inability to pass immigration reform during his first term was a matter of conflicting priorities, the legislation failed during his second term because of objections from far right Republican House members. 

Asked earlier this month how she would get immigration reform passed, Clinton said she would start working early with Congress and that the political landscape would be favorable for reform. 

“I am hoping that the outcome of the election, which I am working hard to ensure a victory, will send a clear message to our Republican friends that it’s time for them to quit standing in the way of immigration reform,” she said.

In that sense, Clinton is echoing Obama. Weeks before the 2012 election, Obama said that he was “confident” immigration reform would pass in his second term, and that his re-election victory would be fueled by Mitt Romney and the Republican Party's inability to connect with Latino voters. Obama won 71 percent of the Latino vote to Romney's 27 percent, according to exit polls. According to a Fox News Latino poll released this week, Trump would win just 20 percent of the Latino vote to Clinton's 66 percent. 

The number of Hispanics eligible to vote in the U.S. has risen from 23.3 million in 2012 to 27.3 million in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. Clinton is also seeking to drive up turnout among Hispanic voters (only 48 percent of eligible Hispanic voters participated in the 2012 election, compared 67 percent of black voters and 64 percent of white voters).

On Monday, Clinton's campaign announced an initiative called Mi Sueño, Tu Voto (My Dream, Your Vote) to enlist “dreamers,” young people brought into the country illegally as minors, to register Latinos to vote. The initiative, focused on swing states like Florida and Colorado, both highlights the stakes of the election—Trump has said he would end the executive order that allows dreamers to stay in the country—and moves Clinton closer to tapping into the full power of the Hispanic vote. 

Activists and advocates say that avoiding a repeat of the 2013 immigration bill also involves electing Clinton with a mandate fueled by Latino voters, as well as electing more Democrats to Congress.

“We have, in our community a long term memory,” said Rocio Saenz, an SEIU international executive vice president. “So we remember the lack of action from our elected leaders, and what they did and what they didn’t do for immigration reform.”

Last November, SEIU released a series of ads hitting Trump, along with Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, for their opposition to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Obama’s executive action to allow children brought into the country illegally as minors to stay and work. The 2 million member union was also part of the iAmerica Citizenship Campaign, a coalition that helped over 12,000 Latinos with their citizenship application within two months of launching in February.

United We Dream also plans to launch a campaign next week targeting Trump’s supporters and donors, in addition to their campaign to get Clinton to use executive action to shield undocumented immigrants from deportations. Martinez said that she's excited by what Clinton has promised so far, but such a move would be another sign of her commitment. 

“We are doing everything we can to ensure that Donald Trump and hate does not win in this election, but we also see our role to continue to pressure even the people who make promises to our community until we see clear and concrete change in our lives,” Martinez said.

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