A Border Patrol agent collects personal items from Central American families who crossed into the United States seeking asylum on April 14, 2016 in Roma, Texas. 
Photo by John Moore/Getty

How immigration could become Hillary Clinton’s defining issue

Updated

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton is slowly telegraphing a willingness to place immigration as a top legislative priority — because if elected, she’ll likely have to tackle immigration immediately, whether she’d like to or not.

Clinton originally planned to build on President Obama’s legacy and protect his executive actions on immigration, which would defer deportations for nearly 5 million undocumented immigrants. That strategy would then buy her time to push comprehensive immigration reform through Congress.

However a Supreme Court case set to decide the fate of Obama’s executive actions may throw a wrench into Clinton’s plan. Justices appeared deeply divided during oral arguments for the case on Monday. And even a 4-4 split decision from the court would effectively doom the programs.

RELATED: What a divided Supreme Court would mean for the future of immigration

The uncertainty means Obama’s successor will likely have to start from scratch in fixing a broken immigration system that has festered in dysfunction for decades. And while Clinton was once wary of making sweeping promises that would be difficult to keep, now she’s doubling down.

“This case only underscores how crucial it is that our country finally enacts comprehensive immigration reform. I will propose legislation to do that within my first 100 days,” Clinton said in a statement on Monday. “We need to stand up, fight for families, fix our broken immigration system, create a reliable path to citizenship and end the fear that haunts too many lives and communities.”

The presidential campaign: Hillary Clinton
Clinton arguably boasts experience in government unparalleled by anyone in the presidential field — but that has also made her a high-profile target for attack.

For months, Clinton’s campaign was purposefully vague about proposing an exact timeline for the reforms, likely noting the inevitable political headwind against pulling off what many have tried but never succeeded in doing: bringing Congress together on such a lightning rod issue as immigration. It was only after she was pressed in primary debates that she outlined a plan, having been cornered into promising to have comprehensive immigration reform introduced into Congress within her first 100 days in office.

In some senses, her evolving embrace of setting immigration as her defining issue could work in her favor in the election. Her primary opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has managed to siphon off large chunks of her Latino support — a concrete promise to pass reforms may win them back. 

RELATED: 2016 throws a wrench into blockbuster Supreme Court case on immigration

But, critically, her moves set the tone for the general election, when she or Sanders will be up against Republican candidates who have disparaged immigrants and threatened to deport them all. If immigration is the issue that brings out voters to the polls, particularly the fast-growing Latino bloc, then Democrats would be aligned with the more than half of the country that believes the U.S. should offer some degree of legal status to undocumented immigrants currently living here.

But some legal experts believe that candidates will still have a cushion of time to hash out a full comprehensive immigration reform plan. They’re optimistic that there’s still a chance the programs will pass the Supreme Court test.

The executive action programs were only designed to be a temporary stopgap, enacted in lieu of comprehensive reform. If they move forward, it would relieve some of the pressure for Clinton to follow through on her plan without taking heat from her allies. But if the executive actions fail, she’ll have to move a lot faster than she may have originally planned to pull off a sweeping, and potentially signature, legislative agenda.

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, Latino Voters and SCOTUS

How immigration could become Hillary Clinton's defining issue

Updated