Bernie Sanders entered the 2016 presidential as the clear underdog with Latinos voters. Few knew his name, let alone his credentials. His campaign was late to the game in releasing a formal immigration plan, highlighting that the Vermont senator's only real record on the issue was a vote in Congress against comprehensive reform.
But over the course of a few short months, he’s managed to siphon off pieces of Hillary Clinton’s hold on the fastest-growing voting bloc in the country. Sanders is now counting on Latinos -- many college students and first-time voters -- to carry him in contests throughout March.
His campaign took a victory lap this week, claiming that they won the Latino vote in Colorado on Super Tuesday. Now, they're looking ahead.
"Latinos will play a pivotal role in Sen. Sanders’ path to victory in important states like Arizona, Illinois, New York, California and Florida, and we’re confident he can continue to win in battleground states with their help,” Arturo Carmona, Sanders’ deputy political director, said in a statement.
So far this primary season, Latino voters have see-sawed back and forth between the two candidates. The same night that Sanders swept Colorado, Clinton carried Latinos in Texas, who made up 32 percent of the vote, by 42 points. More than a week before then, it was Sanders who was on top, leading Hispanic support in Nevada by 8 percentage points, according to entrance polls.
The Clinton campaign has splashed cold water on the Nevada entrance poll results, pointing to reports that their candidate handily won the most Latino-heavy districts in the state.
"Tuesday's results show that Hillary Clinton has overwhelming support from the Latino community. In Texas alone, more than 315,000 Latinos voted for Clinton, which far exceeds the total number of votes Sanders received in Colorado and Nevada combined and shows the excitement for Clinton in the Latino community," said a campaign spokesperson, Xochitl Hinojosa. "Our campaign will continue to fight for every vote and invest in states where the Latino community is critical."
The split within the Latino community could evolve into a major pain for Clinton.
The heart of Sanders’ overall support exploits a major weakness in Clinton’s candidacy -- excitement among young people. The heart of his appeal lies in a populist pitch aimed at inspiring millennials with barnstorming rants calling for higher wages and free college.
It’s a message that appeals to an already aspirational voting bloc that skews young. Nearly half of all Latino voters nationwide are millennials, according to the Pew Research Center, with thousands more Hispanics turning 18 years old every day.
Hard-line immigration policies and racially charged rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates have all but ensured that Latinos will turn out for Democrats in the general election. But even if Clinton maintains her lead in delegate tallies and sails on to secure the nomination, she will have to court a Latino community already disillusioned by the political process.
President Obama saw first-hand how disillusionment with the process could backfire in lasting ways. He promised to pass comprehensive immigration reform in his first term. Instead, advocates were left so frustrated by inaction that they dubbed him as “deporter-in-chief.”
It took Obama years to shrug off the moniker, but the community will almost never shake the fact that the administration surpassed the milestone of 2 million people deported on the president’s watch.
Clinton is set up to follow a similar path. Advocates have pressed for her to commit that if elected, she would enact comprehensive immigration reform within her first 100 days in office. She has since said she’d at least introduce legislation within that time frame. But with Congress likely to remain in Republican control, Clinton would almost certainly be caught in a bind -- good luck passing a pathway to citizenship for millions when the GOP refuses to sign onto anything remotely resembling so-called “amnesty.”
DREAMers, young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, have amassed a powerful movement that has learned that protest, vocal opposition and holding accountable all politicians -- even Democrats and their allies -- is necessary to achieve what advances they can take outside of Congress. Young people have pressured Clinton in the past. It's likely they'd be willing to do the same again.
Clinton has to wrestle with a complicated record on immigration that she says has evolved over the years.
Clinton responded to a flood of unaccompanied minors caught at the U.S. border in 2014 by saying they needed to be deported to “send a message” to other Central American families. Years before that, she crossed DREAMers for coming out against offering driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
Alan Aleman, a DREAMer, confronted Clinton during a town hall hosted by MSNBC in Nevada. He later said he was acting as a proxy for other young Latinos who questioned whether Clinton’s new approach to immigration was genuine.
“She didn’t explain to me why she didn’t want driver’s licenses,” Aleman told MSNBC. “I need to know the real reason why -- was it political? Was it for national security? At that time she was going to run for the presidency, so maybe it was something political that it was common sense.”