LAS VEGAS: Hillary Rodham Clinton staked an early claim for Latino support Tuesday by calling for a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, elevating the debate on an issue likely to play a vital role in the 2016 presidential race.
Appearing with several young people who benefited from an easing of deportations under President Barack Obama, the Democratic frontrunner said she would extend that policy to include their parents, and also seek a “more humane, more targeted and more effective” approach to enforcing the country’s immigration laws.
Clinton’s comments at a predominantly Latino high school drew a purposely sharp line between her stance and the large field of GOP candidates — not one of whom supports eventual citizenship for people lacking proper legal documentation.
It also highlighted a split among Republicans, between hard-liners who favor an enforcement-driven approach to illegal immigration and others who support a more comprehensive overhaul that, in some fashion, would allow millions of people in the country without proper documentation to avoid deportation.
If Congress failed to go along, Clinton said, she would do “everything possible under the law” to act unilaterally — emulating moves by Obama that outraged Republicans.
Obama acted on immigration “in the face of inaction that was not on the merits but politically motivated for partisan reasons,” Clinton said, “which is not the way we should be solving our problems in our country.”
Immigration is not necessarily the topmost issue for Latino voters; repeated surveys have found that education, jobs and other economic issues are typically cited as a greater concern. But immigration is extremely important for how it shapes political perceptions, among Latinos as well as Asian-Americans.
The two are the fastest-growing voter groups in the country and have been key to Democratic success in states including California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico.
“It’s a threshold issue in the sense that it’s the lens through which the candidates are seen,” said Michael Saragosa, a Republican strategist in Sacramento, Calif., who works on Latino outreach. “It doesn’t matter if you’re good on education, job creation, public safety. (Voters) will turn a deaf ear on you unless they believe you’re pro-ethnic group.”
Mindful of the party’s image problem, some prominent Republicans have called for a new, more broad-reaching approach to the illegal immigration issue.
The difficulty for candidates seeking the party’s nomination is that many of the GOP’s most vocal and reliable supporters favor a no-tolerance policy, focused entirely on law enforcement, and view any concession to those living in the country illegally as unacceptable “amnesty.” Finding a middle ground has proved elusive for Republican hopefuls.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has called for a pathway to legal status — though not citizenship — for some of the millions in the country illegally, a position that holds out hope for winning greater support among Latinos and Asian-Americas but alienates many conservative Republicans.