Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign pledge to give pro-immigration activists almost everything they want — including expanding President Obama’s deportation amnesty to more illegal immigrants — wowed activists but also left them wondering whether she was merely pandering to Hispanic voters.
Her bold immigration agenda also gave pause to the White House, which has argued that Mr. Obama has gone as far as legally possible to unilaterally change immigration laws.
Cesar Vargas, co-director of the anti-deportation Dream Action Coalition, said activists wanted more than words from the Democratic front-runner after Mr. Obama failed to keep promises to illegal immigrants.
“It’s not just hearing what we want to hear. It’s seeing some type of action,” he said.
The White House left in doubt whether Mrs. Clinton could legally carry out her plans, such as her promise to grant deportation amnesty to the illegal immigrant parents of the so-called Dreamers, adults who were brought illegally into the U.S. as children and who have been shielded from deportation by Mr. Obama.
When Mr. Obama used executive action in November to try to grant deportation amnesty to as many as 5 million more illegal immigrants, the Department of Justice’s office of legal counsel issued an opinion that supported the action but specifically stated that it could not include the parents of Dreamers.
A federal judge blocked the action from taking effect while the issue is fought in court.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest insisted that Mr. Obama has done everything within his legal authority to ease deportations.
Mr. Earnest was at a loss, however, when asked at the daily White House press briefing whether Mrs. Clinton could go further.
“I’m not a judge. I didn’t go to law school, so I’m not going to be in a position to render a legal opinion about that,” he said, adding that it was up to the Clinton campaign to provide a legal argument.
The Clinton campaign did not respond to questions about the legal justification for blocking deportation of Dreamers’ parents or other measures she endorsed.
Her plan, which she outlined at a Cinco de Mayo campaign event in Las Vegas, included granting attorneys to illegal immigrants facing immigration proceedings and moves to release more illegal immigrants from detention facilities while they await deportation.
The former first lady, senator and top diplomat also called for Congress to pass immigration reform legislation that included “a path to full and equal citizenship” for most of the roughly 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., which is the pro-immigrant movement’s Holy Grail.
For some in the movement, it was almost too good to be true.
“It’s the talk of the town how bold and how visionary she was on immigration. But now it’s like, OK, what’s next,” said Mr. Vargas of the Dream Action Coalition.
He said Mrs. Clinton must convince Hispanic and other pro-immigration voters that she is serious.
“My 70-year-old mother could be deported at any time,” he said. “I’m not going to be a cheerleader. I’m going to push Hillary Clinton and all the other candidates to the right direction because this is personal for me and not a political career like Hillary Clinton has had. This is personal. This is about my mother.”
Monica Reyes, a leader of Dream Iowa, said Mrs. Clinton championship of illegal immigrants could be more about the election than about the cause.
“That’s what we’re kind of fearful of,” said the student activist at the University of Northern Iowa.
She recalled an interaction with Mrs. Clinton last year that made her suspicious about the candidate’s latest motives.
In September, Ms. Reyes confronted Mrs. Clinton in Iowa about her stance on helping Dreamers such as herself and was dissatisfied with her answer: “Elect more Democrats.”
“It’s kind of like a slap in the face. We can’t vote,” Ms. Reyes said.
“In the past, she hasn’t been one of those clear immigration reform supporters. So we want to make sure that she isn’t just saying it to get the Latino vote but then in the end not do anything about it,” she said.
Indeed, Mrs. Clinton has a spotty record on immigration issues.
Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, signed tough immigration laws in 1996 that cracked down on illegal and legal immigrants.
Under those laws, illegal immigrants who stay in the U.S. more than a year must return to their home countries for 10 years before applying for legal status. The 10-year rule continues to frustrate many illegal residents who want fix their status.
Mrs. Clinton opposed driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants during her 2008 run for president. She later reversed her position.
As senator, she voted for legalization bills in 2006 and 2007. But she also voted for constructing a border fence that outraged Hispanic activists.
Clarissa Martinez-De-Castro, a deputy vice president for the National Council of La Raza, said Mrs. Clinton’s positions in the past do not take away from her embrace of immigrant rights in her current campaign.
“From the perspective of Latino voters, we want to hear from any and all candidates what is their formula to achieve relief, resolution and reform on the issue of immigration, and she certainly leaned into it not only expressing support for what is a popular position, comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship, but also going a step further,” Mrs. Martinez-De-Castro said.
“She’s frankly taken the lead on an issue that the vast majority of Americans agree on and set a mark for others to match,” she said.