Hillary Woos Latinos, Vows More Immigration Action

Hillary Woos Latinos, Vows More Immigration Action
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In swing state Nevada Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton made an overt play for Latino votes with vows to “fight” for comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, accompanied by a pledge to “go even further” than President Obama to defer deportations if lawmakers don’t act.

To add real-world storytelling to her policy speech in Las Vegas, Clinton chatted with hand-picked young immigrants gathered at the city’s Rancho High School library. With the aplomb of someone practiced at running meetings, she encouraged the offspring of undocumented migrants to explain their ambitions and successes, along with their fears that relatives may be deported, their families separated, and illegal immigrants exploited as cheap labor while citizenship remains out of reach.

In Clinton’s narrative, immigration reforms are a key plank in her family-centered economic agenda, as well as evidence of her enthusiasm for Obama’s controversial interpretations of his executive authority in the absence of congressional action.

 Hispanics, who have said the president during his first term was risk-averse and late in pushing Congress to adopt immigration legislation -- which in 2013 finally cleared the Senate but not the House -- swooned when he ordered waivers that lifted the threat of deportation from more than 4 million out of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living and working in the country.

Obama leaned on immigration and a path to citizenship to establish sharp contrasts with Republican challengers during his 2012 re-election bid, and Clinton on Tuesday followed suit. Her immigration policies, coupled with her still-fuzzy proposals on education, health care and help for small businesses and the economy, could help her in other states where the Latino population is on the rise.

 “This is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side. Make no mistake: Not a single Republican candidate -- announced or potential -- is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one,” she said. “When they talk about legal status, that’s code for second-class status.”

With the exception of 1976, the winner in every presidential election since 1912 has carried Nevada, a state with shifting demographics and a Latino population near 28 percent. Obama won its five electoral votes in 2008 as the state’s fortunes took a nose dive during the Great Recession, and he returned in 2012 to win the six electoral votes there.

As she began her remarks, Clinton touched on families and workers she met in Nevada in 2008, without mentioning it was the only state caucus she won during the Democratic primary contests.

Although Democrats have long aspired to turn Nevada permanently blue, Republicans prospered in last year’s midterms, securing control of both houses of the state legislature and keeping the governorship.

Clinton recently campaigned in Iowa and New Hampshire (and will soon appear in South Carolina) offering the broad outlines of a presidential platform that largely mirrors Obama and congressional Democratic policies (although international trade pulls her closer to the president and pushes her away from progressive free-trade opponents on Capitol Hill and in organized labor).

Even her speech in New York last week calling for an end to “mass incarceration” and for police body cameras nationwide offered big-sky dissections of problems more than a menu of new policy solutions.

But Clinton’s Nevada speech opened another phase. She used the phrase “as president, I would ...” and said at least three times she’d “do everything I can” to keep immigrant families together, protect and enlarge Obama’s efforts to block some deportations, and offer work permits to those granted temporary status. 

She was specific enough to provoke responses from both the Republican National Committee (assertion: she “flip-flopped” on immigration over the years), as well as the campaign-in-waiting of former Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a fellow Democrat (whose spokeswoman noted he opposed deporting unaccompanied migrant children last year -- implying, correctly, that Clinton embraced Obama’s efforts to remove children and return them to relatives in Central America).

Yet, her policy ideas were not sharply defined, and invited follow-up questions from the so-called DREAMers encircling her in Las Vegas, as well as from reform advocates who lamented in press releases that Clinton’s “encouraging” rhetoric left them with questions.

The former secretary of state endorsed a legislative overhaul to create a pathway to citizenship, although she offered no predictions that Congress in 2017 or beyond would have a change of heart. “I think we have to just keep working at it,” she said.

As a former senator from New York, Clinton said she examined data in her state and decided that any call to deport 11 million people “is beyond absurd.”

She applauded the merits, constitutionality and legality of Obama’s deportation waivers for qualified undocumented migrants, and said she’d go beyond the president’s policies in the face of congressional inaction. It was her way of signaling to Hispanics that on immigration, she is campaigning as Obama’s third term, offering the reassurance of continuity when most executive actions expire or are jettisoned with any new president.

Clinton hailed the protected status the administration granted undocumented immigrants who were brought to the country as children (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), as well as the subsequent expansion known as DAPA (Deferred Action for Parental Accountability), unveiled by Obama shortly after the midterm elections last November. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals subsequently blocked DAPA, and recently heard the government’s arguments to reverse its ruling.

Clinton said she’d differ from Obama by interpreting existing law to permit other groups, including the parents of DREAMers, to apply for protected status under the banner of “sympathetic cases.”

Her campaign posted a general explanation of her thinking, but did not respond to emailed questions from RCP.

“The law currently allows for sympathetic cases to be reviewed, but right now most of these cases have no way to get a real hearing,” Clinton said, reading from prepared remarks tucked inside a navy blue folder.

“We should put in place a simple, straightforward, and accessible way for parents of DREAMers, and others with a history of service and contribution to their communities, to make their case and be eligible for the same deferred action as their children,” she continued.

The president last year explained to disappointed immigrant families that he did not extend deportation waivers to all parents of DREAMers because administration legal experts told him he did not have that authority.

Clinton did not explain Tuesday why her legal analysis differs, if indeed it does. “A history of service and contribution to their communities” -- her phrase -- suggested a separate category for protected status.

“It was a legal constraint on our authority,” Obama told a town-hall gathering in Tennessee in December. “It was not because we did not care about those parents. And I know that there are a lot of DREAM Act kids who are concerned that their parents may still not qualify.”

Without legal tethers to the United States, the Justice Department advised the president that parents of DREAMers could not qualify and should not be included.

“The challenge we had -- in the minds of the Office of Legal Counsel -- was we’ve already exempted the young people through DACA. And then you boot-strap off of that -- the capacity to exempt their parents as well -- you’re not rooted originally in either somebody who is a citizen or a legal permanent resident,” Obama said.

During her Las Vegas event, Clinton said she’d like to “legalize” undocumented students when they graduate from U.S. colleges and universities.

She also championed reforms at immigrant detention facilities to protect children and “vulnerable” undocumented immigrants held by the government, including LGBT border-crossers. She called her approach “humane,” and said, “We have to do more to provide safe environments for vulnerable populations.”

Last fall, 10 Democratic senators, including party leaders, wrote to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson objecting to administration plans to build a mammoth 2,400-bed detention facility. The American Civil Liberties Union also complained to the administration about its “warehousing” policies. The department’s focus on detention reforms fell by the wayside during the surge of undocumented minors at the border with Mexico last year. Obama asked Congress for nearly $4 billion to reckon with the crisis, but Congress never acted on his request.

 Clinton said children and other immigrants who are deemed vulnerable to abuse “should not be in big detention facilities.” She argued that private contractors hired by the government to operate sites have a “built-in incentive to fill them up” because there is a legal requirement that “so many beds be filled.”

“So, people go out and round up people in order to get paid on a per-bed basis,” Clinton said. “That just makes no sense at all to me. That’s not the way we should be running any detention facility. I think there’s a lot we have to do to change what is currently happening and try to put us on a path toward a much better, fairer, more humane system for everybody,” she continued.

Clinton did not say whether she believes blame rests with administration management, Congress, existing statutes, abuses by government contractors, the pressures of public opinion tied to tough border enforcement, or all of those factors.

Her campaign spokesman did not respond to questions about detention reforms.

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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