Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton vowed Tuesday that if elected, she would try to expand President Obama’s deportation amnesty to more illegal immigrants, saying this administration has left out a number of aliens who deserve to be granted legal status.
Speaking in Las Vegas at a Cinco de Mayo meeting focused on immigration, Mrs. Clinton also called for granting attorneys to illegal immigrants facing the complex immigration system, and said she would like to re-examine detention to ensure more illegal immigrants are released as they await deportation.
Mrs. Clinton delivered on just about every question from immigrant rights activists, who had been pressing her to reject Mr. Obama’s detention policies and go beyond his amnesty.
“We should go as far as we can to get the resources to provide support and, particularly, representation, and change some of our detention processes within the kind of discretion I think the president has exercised with his executive orders,” Mrs. Clinton told so-called Dreamers, or young illegal immigrants in the U.S. under color of law of Mr. Obama’s initial 2012 amnesty, with whom she met during her public roundtable discussion.
She said she wants Congress to pass a broad immigration bill that would grant most illegal immigrants “a path to full and equal citizenship,” but said if Capitol Hill continues to stalemate, she would use presidential powers to the extent of the law.
Mrs. Clinton specifically called for expanding legal status to illegal immigrant parents of Dreamers — a category of people cut out of Mr. Obama’s latest amnesty after the Justice Department said that would be going too far.
The former first lady said she would try to create a process by which those parents could come forward and make a humanitarian case for being added to the amnesty, known as “deferred action,” that Mr. Obama has created.
“If Congress continues to refuse to act, as president, I would do everything possible under the law to go even further,” she said. “The law currently allows for sympathetic cases to be reviewed, but right now most of these cases have no way to get a real hearing. Therefore, we should put in place a simple, straightforward, accessible way for parents of Dreamers and others with a history of service and contribution to their communities to make their case and to be eligible for the same deferred action as their children.”
Mrs. Clinton also pointedly attacked the entire Republican field, saying none of them — either announced or potential candidates — supports a true pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants. She said most of the candidates who call for legal status would consign immigrants to second-class status instead of giving them full citizenship.
Several Republican hopefuls actually have embraced a full pathway to citizenship, including Sens. Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio, who helped write the 2013 Senate immigration bill that Mrs. Clinton repeatedly praised during her town hall.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has also embraced a pathway to citizenship, which is considered the ultimate goal for many illegal immigrants.
Mrs. Clinton checked off so much of immigrant rights groups’ checklist that Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, said she “just bear-hugged immigrants and the immigration issue in a way that could shake up the entire 2016 race.”
“These are exactly the kind of specific policy positions immigrants and their allies wanted to hear, and is likely to have a powerful effect on the enthusiasm of Latinos, Asian-Americans and immigrant voters,” Mr. Sharry said.
The Republican National Committee, however, warned that Mrs. Clinton’s flip-flops on issues should make voters think twice before believing her promises on immigration.
“When Hillary Clinton says ‘You know where I stand,’ the truth is she may not be standing there tomorrow,” RNC Hispanic media director Ruth Guerra said.
One of the Dreamers with whom Mrs. Clinton met asked whether she would allow parents who have already been deported to apply to come back.
“That’s just really so painful,” Mrs. Clinton said, though she didn’t commit to anything specific.
Several of the Dreamers told Mrs. Clinton they or their parents would be able to get legal status but for a 1996 law that imposed a 10-year bar on many illegal immigrants, saying that those who entered illegally and stayed for at least 12 months must go home for a decade before applying to adjust their status.
Ironically, that 10-year bar law was signed in 1996 by Mrs. Clinton’s husband, former President Clinton, whom immigrant rights activists have described as having a “terrible” record on immigration.
Mrs. Clinton, who didn’t mention her husband’s role in that 1996 law, has taken a more generous approach in her post-White House time as a U.S. senator and as a presidential candidate in 2008. She voted for legalization bills in 2006 and 2007.
But she also voted for the border fence — a vote that angered Hispanic activists, who saw it as an attack on their community.
Mrs. Clinton also stumbled during the 2008 campaign when she was critical of illegal immigrants getting driver’s licenses. She has reversed herself this year, saying she believes licenses should be granted.
Polling suggests the immigration issue has trended toward Mrs. Clinton’s view, with voters increasingly open to a pathway to citizenship for most illegal immigrants. But the polls also suggest voters want strict conditions on that pathway and want to see the border secured first.
Mr. Obama, during the 2008 campaign, promised Hispanic voters he would sign an immigration bill into law in his first year. But upon inauguration he shied away from the issue, instead moving on his stimulus package and health care law.
Mrs. Clinton said she would put immigration “on the top of my priority list” but declined to give any guarantees, saying she was aware of Mr. Obama’s experience.
While failing to win an immigration deal, Mr. Obama stepped up deportations for the first four years in office, setting a record of nearly 410,000 people kicked out in 2012. But by 2013 his initial amnesty for Dreamers kicked in, granting them tentative legal status and work permits, and deportations began to drop.
More than 600,000 Dreamers have been approved for that initial amnesty. As many as 5 million more could be eligible for the expanded amnesty Mr. Obama announced in November 2014, though that program has been put on hold by a federal judge.