Since launching her campaign, Hillary Clinton has gone to great lengths to reach out to Latino activists — from hiring formerly unauthorized immigrant and DREAMer activist Lorella Praeli to holding an early campaign event on immigration at which she proposed, boldly, to go further in granting relief to unauthorized immigrants than President Obama has ever tried to do.
But members of the Spanish-language media don't tend to give anyone a pass on immigration, and they have a long memory.
So it was probably inevitable that when Clinton was interviewed on Univision's Al Punto last week, interviewer Maria Elena Salinas asked her about something that still sticks in many Latinos' minds: that Clinton, in June 2014, was one of the first and most prominent politicians to say that most of the children and families arriving from Central America "should be sent back":
They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who the responsible adults in their family are, because there are concerns about whether all of them can be sent back, but I think all of them that can be should be reunited with their families [...] we have to send a clear message that ‘Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean your child gets to stay. We don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws or encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.
To many, this was, and still is, a horrifying sentiment. Many of these people were fleeing violence in their home countries and were coming to the US to claim asylum. As dangerous as the journey was, they'd decided it was a better choice than staying where they were. And Clinton — in an argument that a lot of Democrats and Republicans picked up on — was saying that the US should make an example out of people here now, to send a message to people who might come in the future.
Clinton struggled to square her 2014 and 2015 positions
By the time Clinton went on Univision in 2015, she'd changed her tune: She's now calling for an end to detention of immigrant families, for example. But when Salinas asked her about comments made in 2014, Clinton struggled to reconcile them — and ended up essentially saying that she'd just skipped over the part where everyone would get due process of law.
MES: Now when the children’s border crisis erupted last year you said these children should be sent back to their countries once they find a responsible adult that can take care of them. Why send them back to a place or to the same conditions that let them to leave in the first place, poverty and violence?
HRC: Well, my answer assumed that they would go through the process that everybody is entitled to. And that’s what I am still calling for. There needs to be lawyers, advocates, judges assigned to get these children’s stories told, so that they can understand whether they have somebody here in America who will take them in, which I think some of them do. And we ought to find that out sooner instead of later. And what would happen if they went back. And, of course, we should not send any child back to the kind of harm that could await them. So yes, some would be sent back after a fair hearing. But a lot of them wouldn’t be. And what I’ve been arguing for is let’s get the resources in place, so that we can actually find out what happens to these children. I don’t like them being kept in detention centers. I think that is a very unfortunate decision. And I want to see that, you know, reversed as soon as possible.
This is more than a little dishonest. For one thing, the policy debate in June 2014 was about whether the legal process needed to be changed to make it easier to send children and families back quickly. By saying that the bottom line was that they needed to go home, Clinton's comments put her on one side of that — the same side the Obama administration was on at that point, but not the side of due process.
Clinton's 2015 explanation doesn't make any sense out of the idea of "sending a message." The two are totally at odds.
Why there's lingering distrust of Clinton among some advocates
It's hard for a politician to successfully explain away a flip-flop. The reason this response from Clinton matters, though, is that it underlines the lingering concern some immigration activists feel about her: that she's prone to getting scared into tough, centrist rhetoric.
That's what appears to have happened in June 2014 — Clinton was asked a question on a book tour, and might not have been fully prepared. And even though she is making efforts to lead on immigration during her presidential campaign, she still feinted to the right in July when asked about San Francisco's "sanctuary city" policy, blaming the city for not helping to deport "someone the government feels should be deported." To be fair, this is another case in which Clinton agrees with the Obama administration — but many Democrats are standing with San Francisco, and Clinton, in response to that question, was not among them.
Hillary Clinton's popularity among Latinos is sky-high, and always has been. But activists are a little more cautious. That's why Clinton is making an effort to stay on the progressive side of the Democratic Party when it comes to immigration. So far, her stumbles haven't caused her any major problems. But she clearly still has work to do.