What's really behind Hillary Clinton's immigration gambit?

In saying she would take further executive action on immigration, Hillary Clinton distanced herself from her own past, her husband’s record, and President Obama. She also trumped two key Republican presidential candidates.

John Locher/AP
Hillary Clinton speaks at an event on immigration at Rancho High School in Las Vegas. President Obama says his executive actions shielding millions living in the US illegally from deportation extend as far as the law allows. But Clinton says that if she becomes president, she would go even further.

In a bold bid for the Latino vote, Hillary Clinton has reset the calculus on a central topic of the 2016 presidential race: immigration.

Mrs. Clinton, speaking Tuesday to young, undocumented Latinos in swing-state Nevada, promised if elected to uphold President Obama’s executive actions benefiting illegal immigrants – and then go further. Unlike Mr. Obama, she would defer deportation for the parents of so-called DREAMers, an idea the administration had deemed unlawful.

And regarding her ultimate goal, Clinton injected a sense of urgency.

“We can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship,” said Clinton, speaking in a high school library in Las Vegas.  

In one fell swoop, Clinton distanced herself from her own past on immigration, her husband’s record, and President Obama. But most important, she staked out a position that goes well beyond anyone in the Republican presidential field.

“Clinton was placing a stake in the ground way further out than any Republican can reach,” says Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

In her remarks, Clinton slammed the GOP field on the citizenship question. “Make no mistake,” she said. “Today, not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one.”

In particular, she’s targeting the Floridians, Sen. Marco Rubio and former Gov. Jeb Bush, who both once supported a path to citizenship, and now favor a vaguer option, “legal status.” Clinton calls such language “code for second-class status.”

In the GOP quest to make inroads into the fast-growing Latino vote, long dominated by Democrats, Senator Rubio and Mr. Bush are seen as the strongest potential Republican nominees. Both speak Spanish; Rubio is the son of Cuban immigrants, and Bush’s wife is Mexican-born. Florida is the nation’s biggest battleground state, and a must-win for the GOP in the general election.

But during the nomination battle, Rubio and Bush are constrained by the need to appeal to Republican base voters, many of whom view any form of legal status for illegal immigrants as “amnesty.” Clinton is taking advantage of that constraint to try to lock down the Latino vote before the general election campaign has even started. Because she‘s so far ahead in the Democratic nomination race, she can already play for the general election while the Republicans are busy fighting each other. 

“For Latino voters, her positioning just erases any doubts people might have had that she was going to be soft on this issue, or wasn’t going to say anything about it before the general election,” says Sylvia Manzano, a principal at Latino Decisions polling. “It’s very clear where she stands.”

Two days after Clinton’s remarks in Nevada, the Republican National Committee is using her own (old) words against her. In a 2003 radio interview, then-Senator Clinton declared herself to be “adamantly opposed to illegal immigrants.”  

“Hillary Clinton’s hypocrisy knows no bounds,” RNC press secretary Allison Moore said Thursday in a statement accompanying an audio clip of the interview. 

Clinton, in fact, has favored a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants for at least 10 years, but other comments have given immigration activists pause. In a 2007 debate, during her first presidential campaign, she waffled over whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to get driver’s licenses. Last summer, when the southern US border was flooded with young migrants from Central America, she called for them to be sent home.

Last month, the Clinton campaign made clear she favors giving driver’s licenses to undocumented residents.  And in her remarks on Tuesday, she tried to “out-Obama” Obama on deportation policy. In the White House briefing room Wednesday, her Nevada remarks created some uncomfortable moments. Press secretary Josh Earnest was asked to explain how Clinton could promise to defer deportation for the parents of DREAMers, after the Obama administration had argued that the law did not allow it.

“There may be a legal explanation that they have that you should ask them about,” Mr. Earnest said. 

In her remarks in Las Vegas, Clinton offered her own legal interpretation.

“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,” said Clinton, who is a lawyer. “Therefore, we should put in place a simple, straightforward, accessible way for parents of DREAMers and others with a history of service and contribution to their communities, to make their case and to be eligible for the same deferred action as their children. But that's just the beginning.”

DREAMers are people who were brought to the US illegally as children, and since 2012 have been able to apply for deferral from deportation. Last November, Obama expanded the program and added the possibility of deferred deportation for the illegal immigrant parents of US citizens and legal residents.

But he concluded, based on a memo from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel, that he could not do the same for the parents of DREAMers, because it would be too far removed from any congressionally approved use of deferred action in the past. In addition, it would establish a path to special immigration status with no limiting principle. It would, in theory, allow any close relative of any recipient of deferred action to seek similar status.

As it stands, Obama’s expanded deferral program announced last November is under legal challenge and not in effect.

Bush has said he would undo Obama’s deferred deportation actions; Rubio would undo some of them.

Also lingering in the background for Clinton is the immigration record of her husband, former President Bill Clinton. He signed bills cracking down on both legal and illegal immigrants, and sped up deportations. But the ex-president has made clear, on a range of issues, that the world has changed since he was president, and so have his views. Furthermore, Clinton expresses no misgivings about his wife’s emerging platform, which is decidedly to the left of 1990s-era Clintonism.

But even after Hillary Clinton’s remarks on Tuesday, immigration activists remain vigilant – and asked for more evidence that she will fulfill her promise.  

“We need to hear more detail, such as what doing 'everything possible under the law to go even further' than Obama would look like for her,” said Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, in a statement. “We need to know she is willing to take political risks for us, but she has been very encouraging today.”

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