BROOKLYN, New York -- Hillary Clinton announced a new piece of her immigration reform policy here Monday, after receiving a key congressional endorsement from a leading voice in the Latino community.
Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez praised Clinton as someone who would work to “keep families together and stop them from being destroyed by a broken immigration system” by protecting President Obama’s executive orders on immigration. Gutierrez formally backed Clinton in a Univision op-ed published earlier in the day.
Beyond calling on Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform, Clinton has sought to find places to reform the immigration process through executive action. The Democratic presidential front-runner used her speech to the 2015 National Immigrant Integration Conference to unveil the latest piece of that executive plan, an expansion of fee waivers for potential citizens.
“America was built by immigrants,” Clinton said. “Our future will be always written in part by immigrants and every single one of us, no matter how long ago our ancestors arrived in this land, whether they came by foot or boat or plane, across the Pacific or the Atlantic or the Rio Grande, we all owe a debt of gratitude” to them.
Clinton has said repeatedly that she would go beyond President Obama's executive actions on immigration, which a recent campaign memo highlighted. Clinton will "seek to create an accessible pathway for those who are not covered by President Obama's executive actions -- such as parents of DREAMers -- to apply for deferred action as well,” the memo said.
As part of her plan, Clinton has also vowed to close private immigration detention centers and expand health care access to undocumented immigrants.
Prior to her speech, Clinton met with a family whose daughters are both DREAMers and DACA recipients. Parents Osman Suarez and Jonaly Canales fled Honduras years ago and raised three children in Long Island.
It’s part of a campaign of "DAPA Dinners” (named after one of Obama’s programs) organized by a handful of leading immigration reform groups to have political leaders meet with undocumented people. Clinton's Democratic rivals, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, have already held dinners of their own.
“These are real live human beings but too often our system fails to see or recognize that. We have got to do better,” she said.
Clinton told the story of how her director of Latino outreach, Lorella Praeli, came to the country as an undocumented immigrant and only learned of her status when she applied to college.
“I am so lucky to have her,” Clinton said, as Praeli watched from the back of the ballroom with tears in her eyes. Praeli will become a citizen Tuesday in a small naturalization ceremony at the White House led by President Obama.
Clinton also slammed Donald Trump and other Republican candidates for recent anti-immigrant comments, especially in the wake of the terrorist attack in San Bernardino. She said Trump and others are trying to “drag us backward.”
Several protesters started shouting during Clinton’s speech, but she did not acknowledge them. Another small group held a sign reading, "Clinton, do you stand with us? People are starving for freedom."
Clinton stumbled on immigration during her first presidential bid in 2008, when the partisan alignment on immigration politics was less settled and Democrats still often mixed tough talk on border enforcement with promises for reform.
During a 2007 debate in New York, where then-Gov. Eliot Spitzer was pushing to give undocumented immigrants drivers licenses, Clinton tied herself into knots when asked if she supported the plan. Spitzer later sharply criticized Clinton on immigration.
That moment and others led immigration reformers to view Clinton skeptically when she entered the 2016 race. But early in her campaign, she earned positive reviews from reformers after rolling out a stronger-than-expected plan to give undocumented immigrants a path to legalization.
Her main rival for the nomination, Sanders, has his own vulnerabilities on this issue after maintaining for years that cheap immigrant labor drives down wages for working class Americans. But he too has evolved to support an expansion of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration and other policies favored by many Democrats.
Meanwhile, O'Malley's longshot campaign has sought to be the most aggressive on this issue, and accused Clinton of not laying out a comprehensive plan Monday.