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.”
Immigrant-rights advocates had plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Clinton, who alienated Latinos leaders during her 2008 campaign with tough talk on enforcement. “Anybody who committed a crime in this country or in the country they came from has to be deported immediately, with no legal process,” she said at a town-hall meeting in South Carolina during the primaries. She opposed giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, and called for tighter border security. Last year, during the outcry over the Obama administration’s delay in issuing the executive order, Clinton hit a particularly tone-deaf note when she told activists they should focus on “elect[ing] more Democrats,” which only seemed to confirm Latinos’ fears that they were being courted for votes but not truly represented by the party.
The major difference Clinton outlined (implicitly) between herself and the Obama administration regards enforcement practices, which she said should be “more humane, targeted, and effective.” She called for changes to the detention system, which has grown under the Obama administration, to the delight of the private prison industry. “A lot of detention facilities for immigrants are run by private companies, and they have a built-in incentive to fill them up,” she said. “People round up people in order to get paid on a per-bed basis. That just makes no sense to me.”
Though advocates were impressed with Clinton’s vision, the lesson many have taken from the Obama administration is to never count on words. “We’re a much different movement than we were in 2008. We’re getting started early and we’re going to continue to press to make sure she makes the right kind of commitments to our community,” said Carmona. He said that he was glad she mentioned detention centers, but wants Clinton to challenge border militarization. “We need clear commitment that these types of practices will end,” he said.
Clinton’s progressive redirection on immigration comes a week after a speech in which she turned her back on the tough-on-crime stance that she and her husband championed in the 1990s. Tania Unzueta, an organizer with the #Not1More Deportation campaign, said that the two issues should be more explicitly linked. “The way we’ve seen things happen so far is that any changes to the criminal justice system don’t translate into the immigration system…. Even if she were to expand deferred action, we’d be facing the same thing—people with minor charges like old DUIs or a felony for crossing the border more than once being targeted by ICE and left out of these policies.”
Unzueta noted that it’s not clear if Clinton’s changed tack signals a renewed appetite to fight for immigrants in the Democratic Party more broadly. “If these are things that the Democratic Party actually believes, there should be some movement on them before she gets elected,” she said. Nevertheless, Clinton is now on the record embracing an aggressive immigration agenda. Whether she’ll follow through if she’s elected is far from certain, but it’s still a vindication for the movement: it has made itself a priority.