Hillary Clinton’s embrace of immigration reform has been an unusually bold gesture for a public figure best known for her caution. By hiring onto her campaign staff a 26-year-old grassroots activist who lived in the U.S. without documentation for more than a decade, the 2016 Democratic front runner has signaled she’s serious about going all-in on the single-most contentious issue roiling the immigration debate – full citizenship for potentially millions of undocumented immigrants – all the while hitting a key Republican pressure point with precision.
The effort may reflect a heartfelt change in Clinton’s views on immigration, nearly eight years after a question in a nationally televised debate on whether she supported driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants sent her into a fit of verbal contortion. But the move was largely political, severely undercutting her likely GOP opponents’ ability to compete in drawing support from Latinos, one of the fastest growing voting blocs in the country, and one that will be crucial for any party to claim future presidential elections.
As the former secretary of state’s stance on the issue takes shape with increased clarity, the spotlight falls squarely on the crowded Republican field, where candidates’ murky policy positions are being pushed further and further to the right.
The strategy could risk alienating voters in areas of the country where illegal immigration remains a hot button issue. But by coming out early and strong on the matter, Clinton appears willing to take that risk – clearly acknowledging that Latinos have led the way in turning many historically red states purple.
“She’s concerned about the swing states where it’s crucial for her to win: Nevada, Colorado and certainly Florida,” said William Frey, an expert in U.S. demographics with the Brookings Institute. “Immigration is not the most important issue, but it’s a symbolic. That enthusiasm is going to be very important for her.”
Clinton outpaced Obama’s Latino support during the 2008 primaries by a nearly two-to-one margin, throwing her support behind comprehensive immigration reform before stumbling at that infamous primary debate. She eventually come out against driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. This month Clinton went much further, saying she supported a full and equal pathway to citizenship, while also vowing to take Obama’s controversial executive actions a step further to extend work permits and a temporary legal status to millions more undocumented immigrants.
While Clinton has been aggressively pushing her position on immigration forward, Republicans have been scrambling to pull theirs back. Sen. Marco Rubio was the architect of the comprehensive immigration plan in Congress before he abruptly began sprinting away from the bi-partisan bill; Govs. Scott Walker, Chris Christie and Jeb Bush favored a pathway to citizenship before they suddenly didn’t; and former Govs. Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee have advocated for tighter border security without detailing what exactly that means.
It was not by mistake that Clinton chose to unveil her immigration platform in Nevada, a swing state that Obama visited immediately after announcing his sweeping executive actions last November. Nor was it by accident that Clinton chose to make her announcement while sitting at a table with young, undocumented student activists – a group the former secretary of state knows she needs to win over – rather than by giving a barn-burning speech before hundreds of supporters.
Lorella Praeli, who was appointed this week to lead Clinton’s immigrant outreach, sits atop a very short list of young DREAMers who can seamlessly shift between roles as an activist, cable news commentator and honored White House guest. Immigration advocacy is inevitably divided into two separate camps – those who influence from within the halls of power and those on the outside who build political pressure from the ground up. Few organizations, like Praeli’s, have managed to do both, proving that the young people directly impacted by immigration policy are some of the most effective messengers for reform.
DREAMers often note that they’ve been burned before. Obama made sweeping promises early in his first term to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but instead the community watched as more people were deported under his administration than any other. Obama later followed through with his series of sweeping executive actions, but with the programs tied up in the courts, it’s now up to the next occupant of the Oval Office to finish what he started.
The obstacles facing Clinton on immigration remain formidable. She faces an uphill battle in actually accomplishing most policy positions she has staked out on immigration: creating a pathway to citizenship and ending bed-quotas at immigrant detention centers would both require support from Congress. Meanwhile, the Obama administration maintains that the president’s executive actions are as far-reaching as possible within the confines of the law – anything further, as Clinton has promised, would almost certainly be challenged in the courts.
The question remains whether Clinton’s early immigration platform could come back to bite her with undecided voters in the general election, should she secure the Democratic nomination. Clinton’s campaign has not been defined by immigration yet, but she carries the risk of being defined in negative terms on the issue with some white voters in Iowa, said Dennis Goldford, a political scientist at Drake University in Iowa.
“For your average, rural, small town Republican voter, illegal immigration is an assault on their culture,” Goldford said.
Just a month into her official campaign, Clinton’s consistency on immigration only amplifies the disarray within the GOP 2016 field over how to address immigration without alienating base voters. In 2012, Republican leaders made adopting a more welcoming tone toward Latinos a top priority after the party’s “self-deportation” platform set them back dramatically in the last presidential election. But 2016 Republican candidates have since seized on the anti-immigrant sentiment of the party’s base, pushing their platforms further to the right.
While flip-flopping on his own position on a pathway to citizenship this week, New Jersey governor and likely 2016 GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie called out Clinton for “pandering” to immigration advocates. Some immigrant rights groups, however, are saying that they’re shamelessly accepting the attention.
“It was a brilliant electoral strategy and it’s a strong commitment,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of the advocacy group America’s Voice. “If there’s any pandering going on, it’s the Republicans who are lurching to the right to pander to the nativists.”