In remarks delivered on Tuesday, Hillary Clinton sought to forcefully distinguish her position on immigration reform from that of her would-be opponents in the GOP, declaring that any solution to America’s undocumented-immigrant problem must include a path to full citizenship. “This is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side,” Clinton said during a Las Vegas roundtable with Hispanic high-school students. “Make no mistake, today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one. When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status.”
She also promised to help protect the parents of undocumented children, overhaul the immigrant detention system, and not only support Obama’s executive actions on immigration, but expand them if Congress doesn’t tackle reforms to her satisfaction. This was of course welcome news to liberals and immigration reform activists, who remain frustrated that despite Obama’s unilateral accomplishments, the issue of how to handle the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants is not yet resolved. Now Clinton is running to Obama’s left, and on an issue of utmost importance to a demographic that proved itself instrumental to Obama’s election and reelection.
But her arrival to this side of the immigration debate is also a departure from her much-less-enthusiastic positions in the past. In the 2008 primaries, she ran into big trouble with Hispanics when she waffled on whether undocumented immigrants should be given driver’s licenses, something she is now in favor of. And as recently as last summer, she argued that the unaccompanied minors entering America illegally should be shipped back to the Central American countries from which they came, and was, until recently, a lot less committed to Obama’s use of executive power to prevent deportations.
But with the 2016 Republican candidates lining up against a path to citizenship or anything else that could remotely be thought of as “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, Clinton is clearly trying to seize her opportunity — and a lot of votes — by making comprehensive immigration reform one of the first big domestic-policy proposals of her campaign. And for all the buzz about how palatable GOP hopefuls like Mark Rubio or Jeb Bush may be to Hispanic voters, they’ll still have to survive the Republican primaries while defending their more moderate stances. In the meantime, Clinton can try to shift the immigration debate further to the left so that when the general election arrives, even the most moderate GOP positions may prove unpalatable to a key demographic of voters.