In what will be her most comprehensive comments on immigration reform as a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton will use a roundtable on Tuesday in Nevada to argue that the only “true solution” for reform is “nothing less than a full and equal path to citizenship.”
Clinton will cast immigration reform as a family issue, an aide said Tuesday, and will focus on the need to find a legislative fix, strengthen the United States border and bring “millions of hard-working people out of the shadows and into the formal economy so they can pay taxes and contribute to our nation’s prosperity.”
Pushing reform, however, is as much a political bet as it is policy for the newly-minted presidential candidate who has already made the issue part of her “four fights” core. A number of Clinton’s campaign aides feel immigration will be a wedge issue in the 2016 general election and are encouraged by the fact that Clinton has performed better than most Democrats – including President Barack Obama in 2008 – with Hispanic voters.
Clinton will say Tuesday “that we cannot settle for proposals that provide hard-working people with merely a second-class status,” the aide said, noting a subtle knock against Republican hopefuls – like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio – who have backed legalization efforts but not full citizenship.
The appearance will be Clinton’s opening salvo on immigration, not her detailed policy rollout, the aide added. That won’t come until late summer or early fall.
Immigration has been a highly motivating issue for Latino voters in the past and Clinton’s campaign will look to keep that up by highlighting where Clinton differs with Republicans on the issue.
“Whoever the Republican nominee is, they will have to go through the primary,” said one Clinton aide. “And at best, they will have to support second class status for immigrants in order to get through that primary, which is a position that will be untenable in a general election.”
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.
Nevada is 30% Hispanic, according to Census data, making it the first early state in the nomination process with a significant Latino population.
“Immigration is one of the most important and motivating issues for Latinos,” said Jorge Neri, Clinton’s organizing director in Nevada and a veteran of President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign in the state. “Latinos are more likely to go out into the streets to fight for immigration. It mobilizes people.”
Despite performing well with Hispanic voters, immigration is a sensitive issue for Clinton and one that she has continually missteped on since 2008.
Providing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants led to one of the biggest gaffes of her failed 2008 campaign when, at a primary debate, she took both sides of the issue in the span of a few minutes. Clinton’s 2016 campaign looked to clean up that issue early, telling reporters last month that Clinton “supports state policies to provide driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.”
After her 2008 gaffe, Clinton responded by forcefully calling for immigration reform, pledging to enact a pathway to legalization – not citizenship – in her first 100 days of office.
But after losing in 2008 and spending four years separated from domestic politics as secretary of state, Clinton was confronted by an array of new immigration issues on her 2014 book tour and midterm election blitz.
At the Iowa Steak Fry, activists confronted her about undocumented immigrants brought to the United States by their parents. At an event in Maryland, waves of protestors heckled and taunted the former secretary of state. And at a fundraiser for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, protestors chanted “undocumented, unafraid” at she spoke.
She didn’t impress the activists with her answers, either. Laura Martin, communications director for Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada, said activists were disappointed when Clinton told an undocumented immigrant in Iowa that the way to help on the issue was to “elect more Democrats.”
“People don’t want to hear that,” she said. “They want to know what they have to do to keep their family together and they want to hear you have a real concrete plan.”
Clinton also told CNN in 2014 that the growing number of unaccompanied minors on the border from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala “should be sent back” and “reunited with their families.”
That dismayed Cristina Jimenez, managing director for United We Dream, the pro-immigration group that organized many of the protests against Clinton, who felt the former secretary of state tried to “play it very safe” on immigration in 2014.
“I think that raised very serious concerns for our community,” Jimenez said about Clinton’s CNN answer, “which was one of the reasons that we prioritized wanting to know where she was really on these issues.”
After Obama issued a long-delayed executive action to overhaul the nation’s immigration system in November 2014, Clinton offered his plan a firm backing and is expected to do the same Tuesday. But going into the 2016 election, activists like Jimenez want to hear much more.
“It is just not enough to say you support immigration reform,” Jimenez said. “If you want to send a message to the Latino and the immigrant community it is not enough to just say you support immigration reform.”
She added: “How is she going to be different from the other presidential hopefuls out there like Jeb Bush, Sen. Rubio and others?”