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Immigration activists put Democrats on notice

When DREAMers confronted Hillary Clinton Sunday, they were sending a shot across the bow of any Democrat who wants to run for the White House.
Hillary Clinton Attends Annual Tom Harkin Steak Fry In Iowa
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signs autographs and greets supporters after speaking at the 37th Harkin Steak Fry, September 14, 2014 in Indianola, Iowa.

It was always a matter of when — not if —  a young undocumented immigrant known as a "DREAMer" would confront Hillary Clinton. The confrontation came early on for the likely 2016 presidential candidate.

“Hello my name is Monica Reyes and I’m an Iowa DREAMer,” the senior at the University of Northern Iowa told Clinton as the former secretary of state worked a lengthy rope line at the Iowa Steak Fry. “Yay!” Clinton replied, flashing a thumbs up as she kept moving.

The former secretary of state has spent the past six years behind a wall of Secret Service agents and staffers, and three Latino activists took advantage of Sunday's event in Iowa to put Clinton on the spot as she signed hats and shook hands with fans.

Cesar Vargas, another activist who co-directs the DREAM Action Coalition, picked up where Reyes off, telling Clinton that President Barack Obama had broken his promise to Latinos by delaying planned executive action to ease deportations. “Well, I think we have to elect more Democrats,” Clinton replied, in an apparent reference to the pressure some Democrats put on the White House to hold off on the order.


The answer didn’t satisfy the activists. "So far, that was her first strike in dealing with immigration,” Vargas told msnbc.

These kind of exchanges, recorded on video for immediate distribution and broadcast, are the signature endeavor of an increasingly confrontational immigration movement that has become adept at embarrassing Republicans — and now it’s Democrats’ turn.

In the past, DREAMers staged sit-ins in the offices of Democratic lawmakers and Barack Obama’s re-election campaign, but the lack of a Democratic primary in 2012 meant most of their action targeted Republicans.

Most recently, and also in Iowa, a DREAMer faced off with Sen. Rand Paul, also a likely presidential candidate. When Vargas and another activist, Erika Andiola, confronted Paul and Rep. Steve King at a restaurant, Paul dropped the burger he was eating and fled the scene posthaste. He later dismissed the incident as a “Kamikaze interview.”

Can Clinton or any other Democrat who runs for president expect the same treatment?  "Of course," Reyes told msnbc. "That's going to be our main goal."

While immigration is unlikely to be a central issue in the Iowa Democratic Caucus in 2016, and DREAMers can’t vote, their actions in the "first in the nation" state set the stage for places where Latinos make up larger portions of the population.

In Iowa, only 5.5% of the population is Hispanic, according to the latest Census figures. That’s by far the largest minority group in what remains an overwhelmingly white state, says Mark Grey, a professor at the University of Northern Iowa who runs the Iowa Center for Immigrant Leadership and Integration. Still, that number is very small.

Since the recession, few recently arrived Latino immigrants have settled in Iowa. Instead, refugees and migrants from former American colonies like the Marshall Islands have made up the bulk of the flow. "The landscape is changing,” Grey said. "We're kind of in this post-Latino phase.”

Despite that shift, videos of DREAMers confronting politicians have a tendency to go viral, so politicians like Clinton should be prepared to handle the ambushes, says Matt Barreto, the co-founder Latino Decisions.

“I don't see anything too troubling in [Clinton’s] most recent exchange with the DREAMers. She's a politician, so it should be expected that she gives political answers to things,” Barreto told msnbc. “But it's a notice to politicians that they need to be ready to discuss this issue ... [DREAMers] will come after you with their cell phone videos.”

And that’s especially true in Iowa, where an emphasis on retail politics makes presidential candidates unusually accessible. Immigration dogged Clinton here during her 2008 presidential run, when she came out against drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants after weeks of vacillation.

At the moment, it looks like it would take a lot of unflattering videos to derail Clinton. She’s extremely popular among Latinos, according to a recent Latino Decisions poll, and has bested the field of likely Republican presidential candidates by margins larger than when Obama defeated Mitt Romney in 2012.

But the biggest concern for Democrats is not losing Latinos to Republicans, but that the minorities will simply stay home on election day. Latinos tend to vote in much lower percentages than whites, and polling shows Latino enthusiasm for voting in general falling off dramatically after the White House decision to delay its executive action.  

And then there's the prospect of someone like Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley entering the race. He has been afraid to challenge the White House from the left on immigration, and is appealing to many of the activists. 

For Vargas, the purpose of their confrontations are simple: “We're going to make sure that Democrats don't take Latinos for granted.”