When Hillary Clinton staked out her position on immigration this week, supporters hailed her for bear-hugging every advocacy group’s wish list on policy points — provide a pathway to full citizenship, check; expand executive actions, check; reform "inhumane" detention practices, check, check and check.
In an era when pledges to "fix our broken immigration system" have been repeated so often by both parties that the phrase has lost its meaning, advocates say it's now no longer enough for a Democratic candidate to say they support an immigration overhaul -- they demand more.
Clinton did not disappoint. Her remarks were the most forceful stance on immigration seen from any presidential candidate — announced or not — defying expectations and and even coming to the left of President Obama, who in recent years has taken unprecedented steps to protect more than 5 million undocumented immigrants who have established firm roots in the U.S.
Clinton is certainly needling Republican contenders who have been imperiled by the immigration debate, allowing the chasm to grow within the GOP presidential field between candidates who have taken a hard shift to the right and others attempting to make inroads with Latino voters. While many Republican candidates have been murky on the details over how they would deal with the 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S., Clinton was unequivocal: “We can’t wait for a path to equal citizenship," Clinton said Tuesday. She also took a shot at more moderate Republicans, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has been open to providing a pathway to a legal status, but not citizenship. "When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status," she said.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker became the first respond to Clinton's remarks, blasting her "full embrace of amnesty" as "unfair." Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee followed suit, also slamming Clinton for seeking to "reward illegal immigrants with the right-to-vote."
"Hillary has started her presidential campaign with an open plea to win Obama's third term," Huckabee said in a statement.
For immigration advocates, Hillary's remarks were both unexpected and everything they had worked for years to achieve. Though Obama's executive action programs have been a lightning rod among conservatives, triggering a flurry of both legal and legislative challenges, Clinton vowed to not step down, even going as far as expanding the programs to offer work permits and temporary deportation relief to the parents of DREAMers. On reform, Clinton firmly staked her position in support of a pathway to citizenship. On enforcement, she signaled a strong departure from the administration's detention policies and reliance on private-prison facilities to lock up families.
Clinton’s aggressive policy stance is a testament to the political muscle that advocacy groups were able to build both at the grassroots level and through the halls of the White House — all in a few short years. “The fact that she approached the issue head-on really early in the campaign shows the power that we’ve been able to build,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream.
Still, not all groups are ready for a victory lap quite yet. “To hear Hillary Clinton have an immigration platform that’s based on unfulfillable promises of immigration reform and citizenship will simply not energize the Latino electorate,” Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente Action, told msnbc. “We’re not very excited by those promises that we’ve heard every election cycle coming from the Democrats.”
Advocacy groups have heard high-flying rhetoric from Democratic candidates in the past. “We have certainly been burned before,” says Dream Action Coalition’s Cesar Vargas. In 2008, President Obama vowed to make comprehensive immigration reform a reality in his first term. But as the years went by, and the Democratic majority in Congress had slipped away, more than two million people were deported under the Obama administration — more than any president before him.
While praising Clinton’s evolution on immigration as a good “first step,” Vargas said her words don’t mean she has the Latino vote locked for 2016. “Our job is not to be a cheerleader for a politician at this point," Vargas told MSNBC's Andrea Mitchell on Wednesday. "Our job is to push them in the right direction."