Hillary Clinton is inviting – and practically baiting – Republican presidential contenders into a battle over immigration.
In her first Nevada campaign event on Tuesday afternoon, the Democratic front-runner accused the entire GOP field of seeking to relegate immigrants to “second-class status.”
She promised to go further than President Barack Obama, whose unilateral moves to keep more undocumented immigrants in the United States have infuriated conservatives.
“I’m ready to have this discussion with anyone, anywhere, anytime,” she said.
Issuing her strongest call yet for “a path to full and equal citizenship,” Clinton hit her GOP opponents, House and Senate leaders and every other target she could find for stymying previous pushes for a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws.
“This is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side,” she said. “Make no mistake, not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. When they talk about legal status, that is code for second class status.”
The signal Clinton’s Las Vegas event sent was direct and simple: She’s willing to go all-in on pushing immigration reform, banking on it being a huge winner for Democrats in 2016.
And she’s fine with moving as far to the left as she needs in order to lure Republicans into attacking her for it.
A new NBC/Wall Street Journal poll underscored the potential payoff of Clinton’s strategy. She leads former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Miami resident whose family speaks Spanish at home, 66% to 28% among Latinos, and leads Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who is of Cuban heritage and once pushed for immigration reform in Congress, 63% to 32% among Latinos.
Clinton and her campaign aides hope her bet will be bolstered by the fact Hispanics have been one of the fastest growing voting blocs nationwide for years. In 2008, according to Pew, 19.5% of all eligible voters were Hispanic. That number shot up to 23.7% in 2012 and is expected to grow even more by 2016. In Nevada, a critical early presidential primary state, Hispanics make up 30% of the population.
Republican presidential candidates have all hammered Obama’s executive actions that Clinton said she supports. They cited new Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s support for those actions as a key reason many opposed her nomination.
And though Bush released a video celebrating Cinco de Mayo on Tuesday, Clinton’s campaign believes even candidates who can speak eloquently on issues important to Latinos will be torn between the demands of their much-more-conservative primary electorate and general election voters on the issue of undocumented immigrants’ status.
Latinos favored Clinton by a 2-to-1 margin in her 2008 Democratic primary battle against Obama. But many had grown sour with Clinton over her failure to wade into issues tied to immigration in her re-entry to the political scene, saying they wanted to see her take the kinds of stronger stands she announced Tuesday.
For the first time, Clinton laid out reform proposals. Among them: Allow the parents of “Dreamers,” or undocumented immigrants brought into the country as children, to stay in the country just like their children can under Obama’s 2012 executive action. The undocumented parents of children who are already U.S. citizens gained that right under Obama’s follow-up 2014 action. She also said reunifying splintered families should be a core goal of immigration policy.
If Congress won’t act, she pledged “as President I would do everything possible under the law to go even further” than Obama has gone already to expand undocumented immigrants’ rights.
Clinton said she wants to see a streamlined process for undocumented immigrants to make their case to avoid deportation.
“We should put in place a simple, straightforward and accessible way for parents of Dreamers and others with a history of service and contributions to their community to make their case and to be eligible for the same deferred action as their children,” she said.
Dreamers were among Clinton’s biggest critics during her recent book tour and 2014 midterm blitz.
Now, though, she’s sitting down with many of them.
At her Tuesday evening event, Clinton sat with several students who benefited from Obama’s 2012 move to forestall deportation for Dreamers – including one girl who said she aspired to go to Yale University and become a doctor.
“We are in a global competition and I intend for us to win it. And I’m not about to let anybody who can make a contribution to our economy and our society get thrown away,” Clinton said.
She heaped praise on Rancho High School, which hosted the event, for using federal Title I money to fund Advanced Placement exams for its students – admittedly “arcane,” she said, but important to helping poorer students like Dreamers whose parents, due to their legal status, can’t land high-paying jobs.
Cristina Jimenez, a managing director for United We Dream, the pro-immigration group that organized protests against Clinton in recent years out of frustration that she hadn’t taken a stronger stand, was struck by Clinton’s comments.
“It sounds like we may actually have a substantive debate on immigration reform and executive action this year,” she said after the event. “Full and equal citizenship for our communities, the protection of the existing executive actions on immigration and a commitment to expand that relief were good to hear.”
Rep. Dina Titus, a Las Vegas Democrat whose district includes Rancho High School, predicted that “this election will be very important to making [immigration reform] a priority.
“You haven’t heard any of the potential Republican making this a priority, just the opposite,” Titus said. “And she will make it that and I think you will see it happen sooner rather than later.”