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What immigration activists want from Hillary Clinton

A throwback to 2007!
A throwback to 2007!
Alex Wong/Getty

Cesar Vargas — a leading immigration activist — has a message for Hillary Clinton: it's great that she's devoting one of the first speeches of her campaign to immigration, but "that doesn't mean we're going to be starstruck."

"We're going to look past that," Vargas, the director of DRM Action Coalition, said. "Because we learned from President Obama."

Clinton appeared in Nevada on May 5 at a roundtable with unauthorized immigrants (as Adrian Carrasquillo reported for BuzzFeed). She called for Congress to create a "full and equal" path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants in the US. But she also said that if Congress didn't do that, she'd keep — and even expand — President Obama's executive actions to unilaterally let millions of unauthorized immigrants get protection from deportation and work permits.

The appearance itself shows that the campaign is working hard to woo Vargas and immigrant-rights activists like him. Being catered to this early in a Democratic primary is a sign that the party understands not just the importance of the Latino vote, but also the power the immigrant-rights movement has to motivate this key group.

There's a very good chance that Clinton's eventual opponent in the general election will oppose a path to citizenship. (Only two Republican presidential candidates have even said they want unauthorized immigrants to get legal status in the US.) But a path to citizenship isn't what advocates care about when it comes to Clinton. They see comprehensive immigration reform, with or without citizenship, as a pretty "easy" position for any Democratic politician to take in 2015.

Clinton has a good track record with Latino voters, with whose support she handily beat President Obama in the 2008 primary. But immigration activists believe they're far more powerful now than they were in 2008, and Hillary's record with them is another story. Even in 2014, her comments on the issue left advocates seriously concerned.

She also must contend with how those activists view Obama's legacy on immigration reform. Obama took major executive actions in 2012 and again in 2014 to protect millions of unauthorized immigrants from deportation, but the immigrant-rights movement remembers those actions as something they had to fight tooth and nail for against an often recalcitrant administration. Some Latino voters — and advocates — are not over the sting of Obama's 2008 "promesa" to introduce an immigration reform bill in the first year of his presidency. He failed to deliver and, at the same time, ramped up deportations.

Clinton's appeal to immigration advocates has to go beyond the safe politics of comprehensive immigration reform and take a few risks to ensure their support. Her first speech on the topic indicated that's exactly what she'll do.

obama promesa
A protester asks Obama to keep his promises about not deporting students and families. (Steve Rhodes via Flickr)

She didn't: expect that support for comprehensive immigration reform is enough

In advance of the May 5 speech, Clinton political director Amanda Renteria made calls to several advocates for input — including DRM Action Coalition. As Vargas paints it, the conversation showed exactly the attitude that advocates think they're up against.

Renteria, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in California in 2014, "expressed frustration about why the Latino community were not turning out to vote." For Vargas and his colleagues, that's an easy question to answer. "The standard talking point that we have been hearing, 'We need to have comprehensive immigration reform' — those are more than decades-old talking points, and it's no longer motivating people. It's no longer inspiring people."

In 2008, Frank Sharry, of the immigration reform group America's Voice, was "pleasantly surprised" to hear Clinton, Obama, and others go after each other during a primary debate "trying to outdo each other on comprehensive immigration reform." But the lesson advocates learned from 2008 is that a presidential candidate can't make a promise that only Congress can keep. As Clarissa Martinez of the National Council on La Raza points out, at this point "we've had a Republican president try, and not succeed. We've had a Democratic president try."

And frankly, advocates just don't feel it should be a big deal for a Democratic candidate to support comprehensive immigration reform, since it's traditionally (and recently) been a bipartisan issue. Advocates may be skeptical that a reformer like Jeb Bush could make it out of the Republican primary without running to the right on immigration. But the possibility's still there.

"It should be easy" to support comprehensive reform, says Martinez. To advocates, it might be a good idea for a candidate to endorse a bipartisan policy, or a policy that majorities of Americans support. But it's not a victory for advocates themselves.

She did: promise to do more with executive action than Obama tried to do

So now, candidates have to offer a plan B: what happens if Congress doesn't pass comprehensive immigration reform? The answer, of course, is executive action — like the ones President Obama took in 2012 and 2014, which would allow millions of unauthorized immigrant young adults and parents of US citizens and permanent residents to apply for protection from deportation and work permits.

But is defending Obama's actions enough? They're certainly a point of difference between Democrats and Republicans — every Republican presidential candidate has made some sort of promise to reverse the executive actions, though immigration moderates like Marco Rubio (and possibly Jeb Bush) have left the door open to waiting until immigration reform has passed through Congress to "repeal and replace" the immigration programs.

But advocates aren't looking for Clinton to distinguish herself from Republicans. Defending what Obama's already done is "the minimum she could say," says Sharry. They're looking for her to promise them more than they've already been promised. (It doesn't particularly matter to advocates that Obama's 2014 executive actions are currently on hold in federal court; everyone in the immigration advocacy world is confident that this is just a temporary setback, and the court battle will eventually go the administration's way.)

"The reality is that these executive actions are going to be associated with President Obama," says Vargas. "What's her legacy?"

immigrants celebrating DACA
Immigrants celebrate outside the White House after President Obama's announcement of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program in 2012. (Alex Wong/Getty)

Sharry puts it differently: in order to win advocates' respect, she has to show them she's willing to stick her neck out. Promising to expand executive action "would be, to me, a sign that she's really going to lean into the issue, open herself up to more criticism, anger from the Republican ranks, in order to show the immigrant community and its allies that she's really supportive this time around," he says.

There's a policy basis to wanting executive action expanded. As pleased as advocates were with the 2014 executive actions, it's not like all their demands were met. For one thing, parents of deferred-action recipients, including many leading advocates (like Vargas's partner Erika Andiola), were left out. (In fact, that's exactly the group Clinton said she wanted to help next.)

Furthermore, advocates are looking for an answer to what they see as the big unanswered question of the Obama administration: if some unauthorized immigrants are "high priorities" for deportation because they've committed crimes or have just come to the US, and other unauthorized immigrants are "low priorities" who should get deferred action and work permits, what about people who fall into neither category, or both? Clinton started to answer that question in her first speech, saying that immigrants with "deep ties and contributions to communities" should be allowed to stay. But that doesn't fully address the issue.

It is, however, more details than even advocates were asking for. As Carrasquillo reported, DRM Action Coalition plans to release a memo this week "detailing what it wants from presidential candidates," but Vargas stresses that they're having an open conversation with campaigns. "It's more that there's a commitment that there's more to be done," he says, "than the specific."

To put it another way: President Obama spent a lot of time protesting to immigration advocates that he'd done everything in his power to protect unauthorized immigrants, and advocates spent a lot of energy getting him to reconsider. The results were the 2012 and 2014 executive actions. Advocates are hoping to skip that step — by getting Clinton to start with the assumption that there is more she could do as president.

She didn't: stay as tone-deaf as she was in 2014

Between today's speech about immigration and last week's speech about criminal justice, it sure looks like Clinton is using the beginning of her campaign to make it clear she knows this isn't the Democratic Party that nominated her husband in 1992.

Clinton's never exactly been a champion of immigration reform. During the 2008 campaign, she famously flip-flopped on driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants; as a senator, she was supportive of the 2007 push for comprehensive immigration reform, but, according to Sharry, her role was limited to proposing a few "safe" amendments.

What really raised some red flags among advocates, though, were a pair of comments Clinton made in 2014 — when everyone assumed she was gearing up to run for president. First, she told an audience that she thought most of the children coming to the US from Central America should be sent back — a stance that was much harsher than the one the Obama administration ended up taking. Then in Iowa in September, when a member of Vargas's group asked her if she supported executive action for immigrants, she said the answer was to "elect more Democrats" — something that was insanely tone-deaf, given that President Obama had just delayed taking executive action until after the 2014 elections.

That seemed like a return to the way the Democratic Party viewed immigration back in 2007 — the last time Hillary Clinton was running for office. There's long been a camp among Democrats that's seen the issue as a balancing act: they should be just supportive enough to win over Latino voters, but not too supportive or else they'll turn off white voters. Sharry of America's Voice describes this thus: "Sure, immigration's important — but not when it's inconvenient."

Immigration advocates are convinced that Democrats have more to gain from full-throated support for protecting unauthorized immigrants than they have to lose. And after the 2012 presidential campaign, when President Obama defeated Mitt Romney largely on the strength of the Latino vote — and then the 2014 campaign, when Democrats lost Senate races in states like Colorado after Obama's delay on executive action — they feel they've made their case and deserve a seat at the big kids' table.

The May 5 speech was an indication that Clinton (or at least her campaign) agrees. She called special attention to the thousands of recent immigrant families who've been put in immigration detention — a signal to activists that she understood the problems with taking a tough approach to child and family migrants. And she couldn't have been more explicit in supporting executive action to protect immigrants if there aren't enough Democrats in Congress to pass immigration reform.

She hasn't yet: talked about immigration even in front of non-Latino audiences

The speech does raise a totally different question — one that's only going to be answered with time: whether the Clinton campaign will treat immigration as a special interest issue or as a core part of her campaign platform. As Sharry puts it, "Does she talk about immigration only in front of Latino audiences, or does she make it part of her stump speech?"

Part of this is about respect — a recognition that Latino voters have done a lot for Democrats in the past few cycles, and a signal that Democrats don't think that "speaking to a general audience" automatically means "white voters." But while advocates don't say this explicitly, it's also a way to prevent a repeat of President Obama in 2008 — who made it pretty easy to forget that he'd made a promise to introduce immigration reform. The more Clinton talks about the need to protect unauthorized immigrants — no matter whom she's speaking to — the more opportunities she's creating for the media and advocates to hold her accountable if she tried to ignore the issue in office.

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