Putting a premium on Hispanic voters as the key to their party’s future, Democratic presidential candidates this year are jockeying to outdo one another with promises to halt even more deportations and grant citizenship to every illegal immigrant — checking off the entire wish list of pro-immigration activists.
Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley became the latest Democratic contender to go all in on immigration Wednesday when he vowed to block deportations for all but the worst criminals and push comprehensive immigration reform laws through Congress in his first 100 days in office.
“I would absolutely do everything in my power,” Mr. O’Malley said at a question-and-answer forum in Washington hosted by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “I would not give up.”
He also took a swipe at President Obama, whom immigration rights activists fault for breaking his promise to make immigration reform a top priority in his first 100 days and not going far enough with the deportation amnesty he eventually attempted with executive action after last year’s midterm elections.
Mr. O’Malley said that to forge a consensus for comprehensive immigration reform, America needs “not leadership that follows public opinion but leadership that leads public opinion.”
“We need comprehensive immigration reform, and we need to engage with all our members of Congress to make that happen. And that’s what I intend to do,” he said. “There’s no magic wand, there’s no easy button for this. We have to talk with one another.”
Hispanics voted for Mr. Obama en masse, helping carry him to victory in 2008 and especially in 2012, when they voted for him over Republican Mitt Romney 71 percent to 27 percent. But Hispanic were left discouraged and disappointed by Mr. Obama’s progress on the immigration issue.
Mr. Obama’s controversial move to unilaterally grant deportation amnesty to more than 4 million illegal immigrants, which some pro-immigrant activists said didn’t go far enough, was blocked by a federal judge and remains snared in the courts.
Eager to shore up Hispanic support, Democratic front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton quickly moved to promise immigrant rights groups everything they want. The other Democrats in the race, Mr. O’Malley and Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, then rushed to promise everything and more on immigration.
“They are definitely feeling the pressure and the strength of the immigrant rights movement, especially when it comes to motivating the Latino electorate,” said Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, which had been advocating for most of the positions the candidates adopted.
He said that Hispanic voters will be looking for more details from the candidates about how they will achieve the goals, and he said to expect the Democrats to go even farther with immigration reform proposals.
“The reality for us that is going to matter is the record of the candidates and how much they are willing to actually commit to the plans and timelines rather than just campaign rhetoric that, right now, Hillary Clinton just has,” said Mr. Vargas.
Democrats certainly don’t want to lose their edge with Hispanics, which are already the largest minority in the U.S. — and their numbers are rapidly growing.
The Hispanic population in 1990 was 22 million, or about 9 percent of the population. By 2013, it reached 54 million, or 17 percent of the total population, and about 1 million more Hispanics are added to the U.S. population every year, according to the U.S. Census.
By comparison, blacks made up about 13 percent of the U.S. population in 2013, up from 12 percent in 1990, according to census data.
“Hispanic voters are the fastest-growing segment of the American electorate — period, exclamation point, capital letters — and are therefore important not just to the Democratic Party but to the entire country,” said Democratic campaign strategist Craig Varoga, who worked on President Bill Clinton’s 1996 re-election team and Mr. O’Malley gubernatorial campaign.
He said that the three Democratic candidates are making the smart moves by aligning themselves with Hispanics and embracing an immigration reform agenda, which he said Republicans shun to their own detriment.
“All three of these [Democratic] candidates clearly believe that America is stronger if every single person in this country reaches their fullest potential,” he said. “Some, but not all, Republicans recognize that their party will continue to put themselves behind the eight ball and lose close elections if they ignore the growing role of these new Americans in our country.”
Republican presidential candidates have taken a more cautious approach to immigration reform, such as offering some illegal immigrants a legal status that stops short of citizenship.
Mrs. Clinton said that amounted to an offer of “second-class status.”
She first staked out an immigration position that went beyond Mr. Obama’s at an event in Las Vegas in early May. She promised to use executive action to grant deportation amnesty to potentially millions more illegal immigrants despite the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel previously advising that it would be illegal.
Mrs. Clinton also promised to make it easier for illegal immigrants to plead for leniency in deportation proceedings and provide more legal representation for young illegals in immigration courts, as well as fight for comprehensive immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States.
More than the other candidates, Mrs. Clinton has broken with pro-immigrant activists in the past, including opposing giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants when she was a senator from New York.
Mr. Sanders, a self-described socialist, has long supported immigration reform but had not made it a centerpiece of his agenda. After Mrs. Clinton came out strongly on the issue, he enthusiastically took up the cause.
“We have 11 million people in this country living in the shadows, living in fear. That’s got to end. We need a path toward citizenship for all of those people,” he said on MSNBC.
Mr. Sanders said that he too would use executive action to halt deportations and change immigration law, dismissing concerns that the Office of Legal Counsel deemed it beyond the scope of presidential power.
“The courts are the people who determine what is legal or not. I think what you need is an administration that fights for justice, fights for what’s right, takes the case to the courts, and you do your best to win that case,” said Mr. Sanders.
At the forum in Washington, Mr. O’Malley showed that he was ready to fight Mrs. Clinton for the Hispanic vote, taking a veiled shot at her record on immigration when he touted his own pro-immigration record.
Among many pro-immigrant actions by Mr. O’Malley, he signed legislation giving driver’s licenses to undocumented residents in Maryland, supported sanctuary cities for illegal immigrants in the state and signed into law Maryland’s Dream Act that provided in-state tuition and other benefits to young adult illegals who were brought into the U.S. as children.
“One of the greatest indicators of a person’s future actions would be how they acted in the past when they had the power,” said Mr. O’Malley.
“I plan to run a campaign that offers new leadership with executive experience, with progressive values and the fearlessness that I believe will rally people to this candidacy,” he said. “I’ve listed the things that I did when I was in power and when I was in office. I intend to offer that same sort of leadership, and we’ll let the people decide.”