Bill Clinton was the strictest president in modern political times when it comes to immigration, signing bills cracking down on both legal and illegal immigrants — but it’s unlikely that record will infect his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has promised a more lenient approach as she makes a push for Hispanic voters in her presidential bid.
The former first lady and secretary of state already earns relatively high ratings from Hispanics and is moving quickly to head off problems, with her team reaching out to Latino leaders to take the temperature of the community.
On Tuesday Mrs. Clinton will be in Las Vegas to talk immigration with young voters her campaign says are “personally affected” by the issue — a signal, coming this early in the campaign, that she is determined to capitalize on an issue that could produce tremendous payoff in a general election matchup.
“Things have gotten much better for Hispanics when Democrats have been in power and much worse when Republicans have been in power. Shaking that is going to be very hard for the GOP,” said Simon Rosenberg, founder of NDN, a think tank that focuses on immigration and demographics.
Mrs. Clinton starts in a position of strength, having won about two-thirds of Hispanic voters in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, where she built one of the most sophisticated Latino outreach operations in political history. Early polling in the 2016 contest also holds good news for Mrs. Clinton, who matches well against Republicans, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — arguably the best positioned within the GOP. According to an ABC/Washington Post polling, Mrs. Clinton tops Mr. Bush by nearly a 3-1 margin.
Still, immigrant rights activists say there are plenty of questions Mrs. Clinton must answer as well. Advocates were furious last year, during the surge of children and families from Central America who jumped the border, when Mrs. Clinton said they should be “sent back.”
“As president, will you reverse that stance?” demanded the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
Cesar Vargas, co-director of the Dream Action Coalition, which advocates for Dreamers, or young adult illegal immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, said Mrs. Clinton will also need to figure out how to move beyond President Obama’s immigration actions, which have included executive action stopping most deportations and granting about half of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country tentative legal status and work permits.
Mr. Vargas said they will be looking for Mrs. Clinton not only to embrace Mr. Obama’s actions, but to pledge to build on them with more executive moves of her own to protect still other illegal immigrants.
“We’re going to try to make sure she separates from her husband’s terrible immigration record,” Mr. Vargas said.
That record included signing the 1996 welfare reform law that went after legal immigrants, requiring green card holders to have been in the country five years before getting taxpayer-funded benefits.
Mr. Clinton also targeted illegal immigrants, signing a law stiffening penalties, speeding deportations and imposing the 10-year bar, which says illegal immigrants who’ve stayed in the U.S. contrary to law for more than 12 months must leave the country and remain outside for 10 years before being able to apply to return legally. That bar has become a major headache for illegal immigrants trying to find ways to get right with the law.
“Bill Clinton on immigration was terrible,” Mr. Vargas said, but he said Mrs. Clinton will be judged on her own stances. He said her team has already reached out to Latino activists to try to get a sense for what’s on their minds.
“They’re definitely doing a good job on listening and understanding the political and physical reality of what’s going on on the ground, rather than just putting talking points on the website,” he said.
Despite his record on immigration, Mr. Clinton still did well among Hispanic voters, winning them overwhelmingly in his 1996 reelection campaign against GOP nominee Bob Dole.
Hispanics were a much smaller part of the electorate at that point, and immigration wasn’t as tightly coupled with winning Latino votes. But now immigration — and, specifically, offering a chance at legal status to illegal immigrants — is viewed as a threshold issue by many Hispanic voters.
Mr. Rosenberg said Mrs. Clinton starts off “with an enormous amount of good will” among Latinos, thanks in large part to the economic successes most of them felt during her husband’s tenure.
“Her challenge is going to be to reintroduce that story to a younger [generation] that’s never voted for a Clinton before,” he said.
Those younger Hispanics are heavily invested in the immigration issue, and Mrs. Clinton has already taken steps to show a softer approach, saying she supports Mr. Obama’s executive actions to date, and saying she believes illegal immigrants should be able to get driver’s licenses.
America’s Voice, an immigration advocacy group, said if Mrs. Clinton runs as an “assertively pro-immigrant candidate,” she will energize Latino voters and make a break with Democratic thinking from previous decades, when they tried to avoid the issue.
The group concluded that her voting record in the Senate was generally pro-immigration: She supported the 2006 and 2007 legalization bills, though she also voted for the border fence. Still, the group said it wants to see whether Mrs. Clinton embraces the “new politics of immigration.”
“Hillary Clinton seemed a bit rusty and more than a bit disconnected from the rapid growth of the immigration reform movement and a dramatic shift in the center of gravity of immigration politics during a series of comments she made last summer and fall. However, there have subsequently been a series of positive indications from Clinton and her campaign that show that she may recognize that good immigration policy is also good politics for 2016,” the group said.
Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports a crackdown on immigration, said Mr. Clinton embraced tighter restrictions because it seemed to be good politics in the 1990s, and he said Mrs. Clinton is embracing looser restrictions now because it’s good politics in the Democratic primary.
“It was purely a matter of political calculation for Bill, and I think it’s the same thing for Hillary,” he said.