Hillary Clinton Takes Aggressive Stance on Immigration

The Democratic front-runner to build on her strong track record with Hispanic voters.
Updated on

Hillary Clinton staked out an aggressive position on immigration in Las Vegas, Nevada, Tuesday, offering proposals that satisfy many advocates' most ambitious hopes and leaving little room for any potential Democratic challengers to tack to her left.

Trying to build on her strong track record with Latino voters and aware of the threat Jeb Bush could pose in a general election, Clinton said she backs nothing less than a “full and equal” path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Clinton laid out her views on during a roundtable with half a dozen undocumented young people who gathered in library at Rancho High School, where nearly 7-in-10 students are Latino. 

"This is where I differ from everyone on the Republican side," she said in her first extended discussion of immigration issues since launching her campaign last month, arguing that when GOP presidential hopefuls talk about "legal status" for undocumented immigrants "that's code for second class status."

It was a barely veiled jab at former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who once supported a path to citizenship but now talks about “earned legal status.”

Clinton's one-day visit to Nevada was her first of the cycle to the early-caucus state, following up on April visits to Iowa and New Hampshire. It was a chance for her to reach out to Latinos, but also an opportunity for her to fundraise, with an evening fundraiser hosted by Las Vegas Sun president and publisher Brian Greenspun on her agenda before heading further west for three days of fundraising in California.

Speaking to an audience of a few dozen hand-picked immigration activists and Nevada politicos including Representative Dina Titus, Clinton vowed to protect President Barack Obama's executive actions and to go even further if Congress were to block broader immigration legislation. "I would do everything possible under the law to go even further," she said.

Clinton also revealed that she supports "an accessible way for parents of DREAMers and others to be eligible for the same deferred action as their children" since they "deserve a chance" to stay with their families. That's something that the Obama Justice Department said last year "would not be a permissible exercise of enforcement discretion," but Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon said on Twitter that the candidate would do so by "creating a clear process for additional sympathetic cases, like parents of DREAMers, to have the chance to be heard."

Clinton dismissed proposals to document undocumented immigrants as completely unfeasible. "It's foolish to think we are going to deport 11 or 12 million people," she said, and all Americans should "accept that we are a nation of immigrants."

At least at the surface, Clinton’s approach isn’t particularly controversial. A majority of Americans—57 percent in a November NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll—say they favor a path to citizenship. Support is even stronger among Democrats. 

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat likely to enter the presidential race in the next few weeks, responded by pointing out that he took a bold position on last summer's border crisis, even clashing with the White House. "When most leaders in the Democratic and Republican Parties were saying that we should close our border to children fleeing violence in Central America, he defied them and said that we could not send children 'back to certain death,'" spokeswoman Lis Smith said. "He was criticized for that position, but leadership is about forging public opinion, not following it." 

Republicans, meanwhile, charged that Clinton's news-making day was little more than a distraction from scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation and was evidence of "her history of flip-flopping on this issue," per Ruth Guerra, the Republican National Committee's director of Hispanic media.

Clinton is staking out her immigration position after a history of dominant support among Latino voters.

In the 2008 primaries, Latinos voted for Clinton over Obama by a margin of nearly two-to-one, according to a Pew Research Center analysis. In Nevada, Clinton won 64 percent of the Latino vote while Obama got 26 percent.

That's even though not all her positions lined up with the most popular views among Latino voters.

During the 2008 race, Clinton stumbled during a Democratic debate over whether she supported granting driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants and eventually said she opposed such moves. But her new campaign has already said that she has reversed her position and supports state policies to provide licenses to undocumented workers.

While serving in the Senate, Clinton cosponsored three versions of the DREAM Act to create a path to citizenship for young people brought into the country as children. She was also one of two cosponsors of Senator Ted Kennedy's 2004 S.O.L.V.E Act, which would have modified visa programs and enforcement procedures, and backed other measures in the chamber. In 2008, Clinton said that, if elected, she would introduce a comprehensive plan on immigration during the first 100 days of her presidency that would include a path to citizenship.

Since then, Clinton has said she supports Obama’s executive actions to slow deportations, calling them an “historic step” in the right direction until a more comprehensive overhaul can be enacted. “I support the president’s decision to begin fixing our broken immigration system and focus finite resources on deporting felons rather than families,” she said in November, adding that the House’s inaction on the bill that the Senate passed in 2013 justified the president’s actions. Clinton reiterated that view Tuesday, stressing that she believes Obama had the legal standing to back up his actions.

Obama's executive actions boosted his approval ratings among Latinos, and remain key to Clinton maintaining support.

Sixty-eight percent of Latinos surveyed late last year by Latino Decisions said they were very likely to support Clinton if she were to say she supports Obama’s executive actions and wants to renew legal work permits for undocumented immigrants who have U.S. citizen children. Another 17 percent said they were somewhat likely to back her. But 55 percent said they would not be likely to support Clinton if she opposed those measures.

(Updates previous version of this story.)
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