Hillary Clinton sat down with a group of undocumented students in Las Vegas on Monday and proceeded to stun immigrant-rights advocates by laying out an expansive immigration-policy agenda. She reiterated support for a pathway to citizenship, which is standard Democratic fodder. But she also called for an extension of deportation relief to parents of children brought to the United States illegally, for a revamp of the immigration enforcement system, and for reunifying families that have been split up—things that distinguish her not only from the crowded field of Republican presidential hopefuls but also from many in her own party, including President Obama.
Clinton’s aggressive proposals indicate she’s attuned to warnings that Latino support for Democrats cannot be taken for granted. Prominent Democratic candidates shied away from immigration during the 2014 midterms, allowing Republicans to wield it as a wedge issue. President Obama repeatedly delayed issuing an executive order to shield more immigrants from deportation, and when he finally did, it was more limited than advocates hoped. Many feared that Clinton would take a similarly timid tack.
Instead, her remarks on Monday indicate that Clinton is going on the offense. She not only defended Obama’s executive order, but also said that in the absence of comprehensive reform legislation, she would press to expand deferred action programs and “try to go further and deal with some of these other issues, like the reunification of families that were here and have been split up since the last eight, ten, 12 years.”
The immigrant-rights community has largely given up on Congress, and so Clinton’s apparent willingness to use executive authority should she be elected is crucial. “The reality is that with a Republican party that has declared all-out war on Latinos and immigrants, we’ll need to ensure not only that executive actions are protected, but also that the 6 million undocumented immigrants that were left out are also taken into account,” said Arturo Carmona, the executive director of Presente.org.
“She gets the new politics of immigration. We didn’t think she would, frankly,” said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice. “She basically said, ‘I’m not going to be beholden to a resistant House GOP when it comes to protecting immigrants.’” She also did so in a way that was “rather historic,” he continued: “She sat down with a bunch of undocumented young people…It was a big deal for us as a movement to have her meet with people who are directly affected. It humanizes a population that is often vilified and invisible.”
Clinton made a path to “full and equal” citizenship the dividing line between herself and the Republican field. Though Florida Senator Marco Rubio and former governor Jeb Bush have at various points toyed with the notion of a path to citizenship, they’ve both retreated to offer tepid support for “earned legal status.” Clinton made it clear that that isn’t good enough. “Make no mistakes, today 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 is code for second-class status.”