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What immigration activists want from Hillary Clinton

Activists spent years pressuring Obama to keep campaign promises. They don't want to make the same mistake twice.

Hillary Clinton was more than half an hour late for her speech to the National Immigrant Integration Conference on Monday. But the mood in the room was neither particularly eager nor particularly impatient — it was expectant.

The attendees are used to waiting for politicians to acknowledge them. And most of them were there not to cheer Clinton, but to evaluate her.

She seems to have passed the test. She said plenty of the right things to please the crowd. But she didn't wholly sweep the room off its feet, either.

It's not that immigration advocates are resigned to Clinton. Really, they're modestly encouraged (perhaps even pleasantly surprised) by how much effort she's made to win over the immigrant rights movement since her last run in 2008, when she was famously wishy-washy on the issue.

But after Obama's administration — most of which they spent trying to hold President Obama to his own campaign promises — advocates are simply tired of dragging Democratic politicians to the left on immigration. They want candidates to come to them, with an immigration agenda more progressive even than President Obama's current stance and particular policy proposals about how to do it. And they want to be reassured that should a Democratic president be sworn in in 2017, they won't have to spend the next four years holding her to her word.

This time around, it's the policy that wins the applause lines

Immigrant rights activists have cultivated a reputation for aggressive tactics over the past few years: They interrupted President Obama at countless rallies during his first six years in office, pushing him to take executive action to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation (which he did in 2012, with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and in 2014 with two additional protection programs that are currently held up in court). But the crowd at the National Immigrant Integration Conference is a little more sedate: As the only conference that emphasizes local integration of immigrants (rather than federal or global policy or law), it's a mix of local activists and local service providers (social workers, educational nonprofits, etc.) who work with immigrants.

The immigrant rights professionals at NIIC didn't always respond to feel-good rhetoric about America — all three Democratic candidates praised America's "nation of immigrants" heritage in their speeches to the conference, and none got a huge ovation out of it. What the audience really responded to were policy proposals.

Clinton's speech on Monday was probably the only one of her campaign where her single biggest applause line was a promise to expand fee waivers for immigrants applying for citizenship. She was hitting on a problem that was top of mind to a lot of conference attendees: Many green card holders who are eligible to become citizens haven't applied yet, and a lot of NIIC attendees were thinking hard about how to get more immigrants naturalized in time to vote in 2016. But the promise was also a simple demonstration that she and her campaign had done their homework on immigration — in other words, that they understood that the immigrant rights movement was a constituency that deserved their time.

Most importantly, one of the biggest lessons of the Obama administration for immigrant rights activists has been that a campaign promise can be a powerful thing. It allows activists to make demands of elected officials in the name of democratic accountability. Just as usefully, it allows activists to avoid talking explicitly about politicians needing to do something to "excite" a constituency and bring them to the polls — that insight might be correct, but it often makes political insiders defensive and hostile (even to the point of accusing activists of trying to hold their constituency hostage).

In 2008, candidate Obama promised to bring up an immigration reform bill in his first year in office. He didn't. Activists spent the next six years holding that broken promise over his head — and using his debt to the immigrant rights movement to leverage executive actions to protect unauthorized immigrants from deportation. They won in 2012, when President Obama granted protections to young unauthorized immigrants who would have benefited from the DREAM Act, and in 2014 when he attempted to expand those protections to parents of US citizens and permanent residents. (The 2014 actions are being held up in court.)

Activists don't want to spend another four years trying to force a Democratic president to acknowledge them

The immigrant rights movement definitely sees the executive actions as victories: Clinton, like other speakers at the NIIC conference, got a big ovation when she predicted that the Supreme Court will uphold Obama's 2014 executive actions in June. But that fight took years, and frankly, many in the immigrant rights movement still resent that a bit. They certainly aren't eager to spend another four to eight years protesting speeches and holding sit-ins to get a Democratic president who is ostensibly their ally to do "the right thing."

The 2015-vintage President Obama is certainly far to the left of 2009-vintage Obama when it comes to immigration. But within the movement, it's still expected that the Democratic nominee in 2016 ought to be further to the left even than 2015 Obama is.

So when Hillary Clinton promised to push for immigration reform in Congress, the crowd basically shrugged — it's simply not something they are asking presidential candidates to do. When she promised to protect President Obama's executive actions, she fared a little better. But when she promised to expand protections to parents of DREAMers — something the Obama administration explicitly refused to do — she got a decent amount of applause. That's seen as the minimum for where the eventual nominee should be. It's also something she'd already promised, early on in her campaign.

The biggest ovations were for new promises. One was expanding the fee waiver for citizenship applications; the other — and her most significant policy proposal of the speech, by far — was abolishing private immigration detention facilities. While private prisons don't account for much of the federal prison population, they are a major player in immigration detention: The overwhelming majority of detention centers are privately run. A promise to end private detention, in other words, is a promise to drastically scale back detention, period.

But Clinton would almost certainly never have made this promise if she weren't being challenged from the left on immigration by both Martin O'Malley and Bernie Sanders. At the start of her campaign, she barely even acknowledged detention issues — and was still accepting donations from private prison corporations (something she stopped doing earlier this fall). But with Sanders calling for an end to all private prisons, and O'Malley calling for an end to all immigration detention, the Clinton campaign appears to have decided that it's worth it to move to the left on the issue.

For the immigrant rights movement, this can be seen as a good thing or a bad thing. Attendee Eréndira Rendon, who works with a community group in Chicago, sees it as a good thing: "I think she's come a long way." She cited Clinton's support for driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants (an attempt to fix the biggest immigration-related black eye of her 2008 campaign) as "a testament to the work people have done, organizations." She was "excited" by Clinton's promises to end private detention and to expand fee waivers.

A few protests, but mostly cautious support

In the room for Clinton's Monday speech, you could actually see the difference: The better-lit left half of the room, where Clinton's podium was positioned, was a little older, a little whiter, a little more willing to give Clinton the benefit of the doubt. The right half of the room, in shadow (and not fully filled up, even after the half-hour delay) was younger, more racially diverse, more reticent with their applause.

It wasn't surprising, then, that the three different sets of protesters who attempted to disrupt Clinton's speech all came from the dimly lit half of the room — and that their neighbors were the ones training their cellphone cameras on the protesters as they were escorted out by conference staff while the better-lit half of the room kept their attention on Clinton. But even the activist-heavy side of the room wasn't expressing vocal support for the protesters, or booing conference staff for bouncing them. They were watching to see what happened — just as, once each protester was removed, they returned their attention to Clinton again.

Each set of protesters was swarmed by the press and tracked by dozens of cellphone cameras. But they didn't really have the heart of much of the crowd. Asked what she thought of the protests, Rendon shrugged and said, "I think, you know, people are free to protest; it's their right."

Kazi Fouzia was one of a pair of protesters ejected early in Clinton's speech for silently holding a large banner calling for Clinton to acknowledge a hunger strike currently taking place among detainees at a number of detention facilities. After they were ejected, Clinton did in fact mention the hunger strikers before calling for an end to private detention. Fouzia's organization, the activist group Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), has protested outside Clinton's offices on behalf of the hunger strikers before. But Fouzia explained after Clinton's speech (she and her colleague had been patiently waiting outside the ballroom to explain themselves to press) that Clinton still hadn't met their demands: to meet with the hunger strikers, or to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement and ask for their release. "This is all asylum seekers," Fouzia said of the hunger strikers. "They have a clear message: 'We want to die here. Don't send us back.'"

Both O'Malley and Sanders had met with hunger strikers, she added. Both had called ICE on their behalf.

Fouzia stressed that she wasn't interested in what changes Clinton was promising to make to the system in future — she needed to see that Clinton was concerned about the well-being of the hunger strikers themselves. "Not the policy," she said. "The people. This is going on now. What is the plan now to take action?"

That distinction explains a lot of the reticence to fully embrace Clinton among other attendees. No one will dispute that she is saying a lot of the right things. But for the most part, the demands immigrant rights advocates are making of Clinton right now are about showing that she cares about the people — that she wants to help immigrants out of her own volition, rather than forcing activists to push her every step of the way.

Clinton tries to show she walks the walk

This is actually the reason Clinton was late for Monday's speech to begin with: She arrived in Brooklyn on time, but met privately with a local family before appearing at the conference. The Suarezes have two daughters who have received deferred action under Obama's 2012 executive action, and one parent who would qualify for deferred action if the 2014 actions are upheld in court. Immigration advocates have been asking all presidential candidates to meet with "DAPA families," as they call them — O'Malley and Sanders already had.

When the waiting attendees were greeted with the announcement that Clinton was busy meeting with a DAPA family, there was some applause — but not a ton. But when she spoke emotionally about the meeting during her speech, saying that she couldn't imagine how anyone could fail to understand how unjust current immigration policy is after meeting a family like the Suarezes, the crowd warmed up to her.

In one way, in fact, the most promising part of Clinton's campaign so far to immigration advocates has been her focus on people — in terms of personnel. In particular, Clinton's director of Latino outreach is former immigration activist Lorella Praeli — who is scheduled to be naturalized Tuesday in a ceremony in DC and sworn in as a US citizen by President Obama himself. Praeli's hire excited immigration advocates, and the Clinton campaign took full advantage of that goodwill Monday. Clinton was all but glowing with pride when she talked about Praeli — even if the speech was much heavier on Praeli's biography than on her contributions to the Clinton campaign.

But the Clinton campaign's strongest personnel decision Monday — having outspoken immigration advocate Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) introduce Clinton — also was the clearest demonstration of the gap between where Clinton is with immigration advocates right now and where she perhaps could be. Gutierrez is seen by immigration advocates as their biggest champion in Congress, and arguably in all of Washington — "the congressman for every immigrant family," as Angelica Salas (of the Los Angeles advocacy group CHIRLA) said in introducing him. He got a full standing ovation simply by coming onstage.

Gutierrez formally endorsed Clinton on Monday. But he couldn't simply transfer the goodwill felt by immigration advocates to her. At one point during his speech, as he listed the places he'd protested alongside conference attendees, a shout came from the activist side of the crowd: "Alabama!" The state has been on the immigration advocacy map since a draconian state law was passed there in 2011.

Gutierrez could have ignored it and pressed on with his speech. But among friends, he could ad lib, and he seized the moment: "We prayed together in Alabama," he thundered.

The crowd went wild.