Clinton backs path to citizenship in Vegas town hall

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to be very clear: She totally supports comprehensive immigration reform.

Yes, she may have been vague in 2008 about her stance on giving drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. (She’s tried to clear that up, by the way.) Sure, she dodged sharp questions on the subject in an autograph signing line in 2014.

But now, today, in May of 2015, Clinton says she’s a believer.

“This is a family issue,” Clinton declared today during a roundtable event in the library at Rancho High School in Las Vegas. “We can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship.”

“We have gained so much from people like your families who have come here,” Clinton told several students, each of whom was brought to the country at a very young age. “I will do everything I can to avoid family breakup,” she added. “It’s not smart and it’s not right.”

The United States cannot deport 12 million immigrants, Clinton said. “It’s beyond absurd. It’s not going to happen,” Clinton said. “We have to resolve the issues that are around this situation.”

Some people fear losing jobs to immigrants who’ve come illegally. But Clinton said if those immigrants were given a pathway to citizenship, they could no longer be exploited for cheap labor. “This is about everybody,” she said.

And Clinton, a lawyer, opined that President Barack Obama’s executive orders establishing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and later expanding it into the Deferred Action for Parental Accountability (DAPA) were legal, constitutional and based on sound precedent. “He had to act in the face of inaction,” Clinton said. “I want to get back to good, old-fashioned problem solving.”

But, she added two important caveats: One, she was not calling for a blanket amnesty. In fact, she said that immigration enforcement should target violent, repeat criminals for deportation. And two, she acknowledged that no matter how much a president can do through executive actions, the only way real comprehensive reform would ever be accomplished is with a change in the law.

If those things sound familiar, by the way, it’s because Obama has also said them. Repeatedly.

Bottom line, however: Clinton is for comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship. And she’s using that position to set herself apart from the Republican field, none of whom has gone that far on the issue (including the two Latino candidates, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio). Instead, if Republicans favor immigration reform at all, they favor a pathway to “legal status,” which removes the fear of deportation but denies the dream of eventual citizenship to those who broke the law to come to this country.

In fact, I could only think of one Republican who had even ventured close to Clinton. In 2011, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said this during a Republican primary debate:

“If you’ve been here 25 years and you got three kids and two grandkids, you’ve been paying taxes and obeying the law, you belong to a local church, I don’t think we’re going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out. I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter century.”

It’s certainly not an endorsement of a pathway to citizenship, but it is an endorsement of deferred action. In consequence, Gingrich was called everything from a moderate to “anti-white” by right-wing media. He didn’t repeat the remark at any subsequent debate, either.

So Clinton’s warm, if somewhat belated, embrace of comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship makes her the candidate trying hardest to win the Latino vote, even if she may ultimately face a Latino candidate such as Rubio or Cruz, who voted against the Senate’s bi-partisan comprehensive immigration reform bill that contained a rather complicated pathway to citizenship. That bill never got a vote in the House.

It also makes Clinton the candidate trying hardest to win states such as Nevada, with a large Hispanic voting-eligible population. She did well in Nevada in the 2008 caucuses, winning the popular vote but losing the delegate assignment to then-Sen. Obama. (That last bit was probably not among the “wonderful memories from my time here in Nevada” that Clinton recalled at the start of Tuesday’s event, BTW.)

But Clinton did hedge slightly: Asked by a student if comprehensive immigration reform would be her No. 1 priority if she was elected, Clinton replied that it would be “among my very first initiatives.” She cautioned that events may force other issues to the top, the way the recession did as Obama came into office in 2008. But that was the point of the question: Many Latino activists have lamented that Obama wasted a chance to get immigration reform through a Congress under Democratic control at the start of his term, and his subsequent embrace of health care instead of immigration cost a majority that could have solved the issue.

That may also be why activists are greeting Clinton’s words skeptically, saying they need to be backed up with action. The DREAM Action Coalition replied quickly to Clinton’s comments.

“Hillary has just shared some great new rhetoric. As a community, however, we have certainly been burned before: President Obama’s rhetoric has always been kind on immigration, but he has still deported more than 2 million immigrants. 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 [co-director] Cesar Vargas. “We need to know she is willing to take political risks for us, but she has been very encouraging today.”

“Congress still can’t pass legislation and has monthly shutdown staring contests: the stance of the next President will likely be even more central to immigration than what happens in Congress. With large scale deportations of low-priority cases still happening, entire families being incarcerated in detention centers and local police still working with ICE, what sort of relief would she offer,” asked [co-director] Erika Andiola. “While she has touched on our issues, like expanding DACA and DAPA, the children coming through the border and our inhumane detention centers, in an exciting way that contrasts deeply against even the best that the GOP has ever offered. Now we need to see if she will stay consistent and follow up?”

On other issues, Clinton said something that might be interpreted as a hedge against her newest opponent, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has championed working class and poor people during his congressional career. “We’re not yet back on our feet,” Clinton said. “The deck is still stacked toward those at the top,” she added, making the obligatory Vegas-hates-a-stacked-deck joke. “I want to re-shuffle the deck,” she concluded.

So does Sanders: Clinton didn’t take questions from assembled press, and nobody at the round table asked her about Sanders’ latest legislative effort to break up “too big to fail” banks to avoid a repeat of the 2008 financial crisis that led to the recession Clinton referenced in the first place.

And Clinton noted that many federal immigration detention centers are run by private companies, and have quotas for beds to be filled, resulting in perverse incentives to arrest people. “That makes no sense to me,” she said. She could also have said — but did not — that it makes no sense to ever have a private, for-profit company responsible for prisons, regardless of the offense.

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