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Hillary Clinton on immigration: 'We can't wait any longer'

In the strongest remarks on immigration of her entire career, Hillary Clinton vowed Tuesday evening to “do everything I possibly can” to help immigrants.

LAS VEGAS – In perhaps the strongest remarks on immigration of her entire career, Hillary Clinton vowed Tuesday evening to “do everything I possibly can” to help immigrants – including going beyond President Obama’s executive actions to extend deportation relief to undocumented immigrants.

"We can’t wait any longer for a path to full equal citizenship,” Clinton declared during a roundtable meeting with young, undocumented immigrants at a high school here.

Clinton distinguished herself from Republicans on the issue and made a personal appeal for reform. “This is where I differ from everybody on the Republican side,” she said. “Make no mistake. Today, not a single Republican candidate – announced or potential — is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one.”

Republicans who do support comprehensive reform typically favor a pathway to legal status, but Clinton said anything short of full citizenship is “code for second-class status.” 

The Democratic presidential candidate hit almost every issue on the immigration reform activist’s wish-list. She called for more humane detention practices, making it easier for families to plead their case for leniency, and took on the private prison industry. And crucially, she said she supported President Obama’s actions to shield millions of immigrants from deportation – and promised to go do even more.  “If Congress continues to refuse to act, as president, I would do everything possible under the law to go even further,” she said.

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That’s exactly what many reform activists -- fed up with promises for bipartisan reform that have been unfulfilled for years -- are after.

Clinton explained that there “are many more people” with deep ties to communities and a history of service who should have access to “the same deferred action” status as people already protected under Obama’s programs known as DACA and DAPA. "But that’s just the beginning. There’s much more to do expand and enhance protections for families and communities,” she continued. 

She even wove in some of the new populism of her second presidential bid, contrasting immigrations with corporations and private prisons. “Our undocumented immigrants in New York pay more in taxes than some of our biggest corporations,” she said of her home state. “We have to reform our detention system,” she added, noting that many detention centers are run by private companies who “have a built in-incentive to fill them up." 

Immigration has been a thorny issue for Clinton, but she won over some doubters here. “I’m blown away,” America’s Voice director Frank Sharry told msnbc after Clinton remarks. Earlier this week, he had told msnbc that Clinton has been “tone deaf” on the issue.

“So much for her reputation for being overly cautious and careful to a fault. She shows that gets the new politics of immigration,” Sharry continued. “Man, she hit most of the key notes. ... Amazing.”

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Still, Clinton will now have to answer questions about her evolution on this issue. She has long supported immigration reform, but hardly to the degree she did Tuesday. Just last year, Clinton drew a hardline on the Southern Border crisis, and stumbled on the issue during her first presidential campaign.

Clinton won the Latino vote by a nearly two-to-one margin over Barack Obama in 2008, but more recent comments had led reform activists to sour on the former secretary of state. Last June, while promoting her book “Hard Choices,” Clinton said that many of the children who arrived on the southern border to flee violence in Latin America had 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 told CNN. A few months later, she told DREAMers that the best way to fix the immigration system was to “elect more Democrats.” For advocates who had been frustrated by the Obama administration’s deportations and the Democratic Party’s promises on immigration reform, it was the wrong answer.

And during 2008, she damaged herself by opposing a plan in New York State to give drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants. Last month, her campaign said she now supports giving drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants.

Clinton campaign policy director Amanda Renteria told msnbc that Clinton’s “story” on immigration has never changed, but acknowledged that she has moved on some issues. “We are in a different place in this country,” she said, adding, “I think people will be surprised because people have been disappointed. And they’ve been waiting for someone to fight for them.”

Upset DREAMers have confronted Clinton twice in the past year, not including a dramatic rolling protest during campaign event in Maryland where half dozen activists interrupted Clinton’s speech and had to be dragged out by police. But Tuesday afternoon, she sat down with six of them here. The group was organized by the local DREAMer advocacy organizer DREAM Big Vegas.

Clinton thanked for having the bravery to come forward. “I pledge to you that I will do everything I possibly can,” she said to close her remarks.