Clinton’s Fuzzy Position on Immigration Worries Activists

Rob Garver

One of the key issues in the 2016 presidential campaign is certain to be how the candidates propose to deal with illegal immigration, from border security to the treatment of undocumented individuals already in the United States.

The question of immigration reform has particular salience to the large and growing Latino electorate, a group that leans heavily Democratic and makes up an important part of the coalition of voters that a Democratic candidate needs to assemble in a winning run for the White House. 

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Right now, that candidate seems likely to be Hillary Clinton, who officially announced her presidential run on Sunday afternoon. Unless there is a massive and totally unexpected change in the general position of the Republican Party between now and November 2016, the one thing Clinton can be absolutely sure of is that she won’t be losing Latino voters to a Republican on the issue of immigration reform. 

However, being sure that voters won’t support your opponent is only half the battle – Clinton is going to need to inspire Latino voters to come to the polls in the first place. And right now, immigration activists say that she hasn’t given them much to work with. 

Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, a group that pushes immigration reform friendly to the undocumented population was one of a pair of activists who memorably confronted Clinton in Iowa last September, in an effort to pin her down on immigration issues.

In an interview, Vargas said that at the time, Clinton appeared to be “not very well versed on immigration policy.”

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President Obama had recently decided to delay taking executive action to ease the threat of deportation for some undocumented immigrants, a move widely seen as a blatantly political decision ahead of the 2014 elections.

“The President has broken his promise to the Latino community, and we wanted to know if you stand by the President's delay on immigration,” Vargas said to Clinton at the time.

“You know,” Clinton said as she kept walking, “I think we need to elect more Democrats.”

“It was just a partisan response, and is suggested she didn’t know exactly what to say,” Vargas remembers. And, he says, Clinton hasn’t done much since to convince immigration activists that she deserves their support.

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When Obama eventually took the executive action he had delayed, protecting several million undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation, she came out with a statement in support of the move.

She has also expressed support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented. In 2007, she supported an effort by then-President George W. Bush to reform the immigration system. 

But Vargas and the activist community, who feel somewhat betrayed by the Obama administration’s failure to move on immigration reform earlier in his tenure as president, are looking for more. Clinton, he says, has so far not provided enough detail or expressed enough commitment to satisfy his coalition’s members.

“We learned out lesson in 2008 from Barack Obama, who promised us immigration reform in his first year,” said Vargas. “We can’t be star-struck.” 

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He said, “The usual talking points are not going to be enough. Saying she supports comprehensive immigration reform and the president’s executive actions is not going to be enough. We need bold leadership that would expand executive action if Congress fails to act.”

Clinton, he said, also needs to show the Latino community that she “understands the plight” of the immigrant community. Last summer, he pointed out, she said that the children being stopped at the Southern border ought to be sent back.

“The majority of these children are eligible for asylum because many of them are escaping rape or violent death,” said Vargas, noting that the United Nations has said that the majority should qualify for refugee status. 

And then there was Clinton’s video announcement of her campaign, which prominently featured a pair of Latino brothers – speaking in Spanish – who were preparing to open a new restaurant.

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“It was a little comical to us,” said Vargas that Clinton’s campaign chose to portray Latino immigrants unable or unwilling to speak English. “Why couldn’t she have two Latino brothers speaking English?” he asked.

That’s one of many questions Latino voters and others concerned about immigration reform are likely to have for Clinton in the coming months.

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