Hillary Clinton supports immigration reform, but that won't be enough for many in her party. The Democratic presidential candidate has a complicated history with the issue, but she’ll put it front and center when returns Tuesday to Nevada, the third state in the presidential nominating process.
Clinton beat Democratic rival Barack Obama among Latinos by a nearly two-to-one margin in 2008. But some of her more recent comments on immigration have led reform activists to fear the former secretary of state is out-of-step and out-of-date with how the issue has evolved.
Once a Democratic wedge issue, immigration reform now has universal support inside the party. Sensing the momentum, an feisty new generation of activists feels confident to vocalize their disappointment in the Obama White House and demand Clinton go even farther in promising executive action to remake the country’s immigration system with or without Congress.
They’ll be watching closely Tuesday when Clinton arrives in Nevada for an event focused on immigration reform at a Las Vegas high school. She’ll meet with young DREAM-Act eligible students at the heavily Latino school and discuss reform.
Crucially, in major move, Clinton will call for passing comprehensive immigration reform that provides "nothing less than a full and equal path to citizenship," according to a campaign official. "She will say that we cannot settle for proposals that provide hard-working people with merely a 'second-class' status," the official added.
Separately, she’ll sit down with a dozen local Latino leaders for a private meeting, BuzzFeed first reported.
The outreach is welcomed, says Ceaser Vargas. He’s the co-director of the DREAM Action Coalition, a group of young undocumented immigrants known for audaciously confronting politicians, which has been sharply critical of Clinton in the past.
When Vargas himself confronted Clinton on a rope line in Iowa last fall, she gave what he told msnbc was the “wrong wrong wrong answer” to a question about whether she supported delaying Obama’s executive action on immigration. Clinton's answer – that we need to “elect more Democrats” – offended activists frustrated with the Democratic Party.
And it wasn’t the first time she damaged herself among activists. A few months earlier, during the book tour promoting her memoir “Hard Choices,” Clinton said many children showing up at the Southern border needed to be turned away. "We have to send a clear message: just because your child gets across the border doesn't mean your child gets to stay," she said at CNN town hall in June.
And during her last presidential bid, an early sign of Clinton’s latent vulnerability came in November 2007 when the then-senator bungled a question on drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants during a debate in New York. She gave a rambling non-answer, before her campaign clarified that she opposed the plan.
But Clinton’s 2016 campaign is working hard to win over the doubters. She’s made immigration reform part of one of the “four big fights” of her campaign, and has invested in outreach.
The day Clinton announced her campaign, Vargas’ group was included on a conference call with campaign Chairman John Podesta and Political Director Amanda Renteria. And Renteria, who is Latina, has been working the phones to connect with Hispanic leaders across the country.
But the event Tuesday will be her most visible sign yet that she intends to prioritize the issue and Hispanic voters. Clinton, of course, supports immigration reform, but the question is how far is she willing to go and how much of a priority will she make it?
Frank Sherry, who runs the pro-reform group America’s Voice, said he was surprised – pleasantly – when he heard about her meeting with young people. “It sure feels like she wants to lean into this and show she’s not just for it, but really for it,” he told msnbc.
Leaning in is hardly a foregone conclusion, he continued. “Hillary came of age politically at a time when many Democrats, led by [former Democratic congressional campaign Chair] Rahm Emanuel, had the opinion that immigration was a wedge issue that hurt Democrats and helped Republicans,” Sherry said, recounting numerous battles in which Democrats shied away from taking on the issue.
Until Obama’s election in 2008, which he won by turning out minorities, Democrats were preoccupied with stopping their hemorrhaging among whites. Immigration reform was seen as almost as dangerous to that goal as gun control.
Clinton’s comments last year on the Latin American border crisis and to the DREAMers in Iowa had convinced Sherry that the former first lady was stuck in the old mentality that Democrats shouldn’t stick their neck out too far on immigration.
The outreach goes a long way towards dispelling that notion, activists say, but they need more than words. “We were star-struck by the celebrity of Barack Obama, and boy did that backfire on us,” said Vargas, who like many, is disappointed with the Obama White House for deporting millions of immigrants earlier in his presidency. Obama has since taken sweeping executive actions to shield millions of undocumented immigrants from deportation, but it only came after he oversaw a huge number of deportations.
Activists will play harder to get this time, especially when Republican presidential hopefuls like Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are embracing reform. Some even think immigration reform might be more likely to pass a GOP-controlled Congress with a Republican in the White House.
When Clinton campaigned for Democrats last year, DREAMers confronted her at several stops, interrupting campaign events and asking her tough questions to put her on notice. “What do you expect when they hear the same talking points for over a decade [from Democrats] and just watch reform die over and over again in Congress? Vargas said of the frustration with Obama and Clinton’s Party.
Reformers want Clinton to promise not only to support bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform in Congress, and not only to protect the executive actions Obama has already taken, but to pledge new executive orders if Congress fails to act.
The first issue they’d like Clinton to address is the 4-5 million undocumented immigrants who do not qualify for Obama’s deportation relief programs, but are also not prioritized for deportation. Clinton is unlikely to roll out detailed policy Tuesday, but she might say she wants to do something to help those people.
The other issue – ending family detention -- might put her in more direct conflict with the Obama White House. After the Latin American border crisis last year, immigration authorities increased detention of families trying to illegally cross the border in an effort to step the flow of migrants. The practice is anathema among reform advocates.
If Clinton addresses either issue Tuesday, Sherry will be thrilled. “I would be so surprised if that’s what happens -- but I’m just blown away that she’s even doing the event, given her tone deafness on the book tour," he said.
Updated with guidance from the Clinton campaign on her plan for a path to citizenship.