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Hillary Clinton’s immigration pledge puts Republican quandary in sharp relief

7 May

Seated between “Dreamers” – young people brought to the country illegally as children – for a roundtable discussion at Rancho high school in Las Vegas, Hillary Clinton issued the clarion call immigration activists had been waiting for this week.

“I will fight for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship for you and your family across our country,” Clinton promised. “I will fight to stop partisan attacks on the executive action that would put Dreamers, including those with us today, at risk of deportation. And if Congress continues to refuse to act, I would do everything possible under the law to go even further.”

There had been unease among immigration reform activists, especially after Clinton dodged questions from protesters last year about her stance on the president’s executive actions. To those who had doubted her, Clinton said on Tuesday: “You know where I stand. There can be no question about it.”

Her declaration was embraced with rapturous support by the immigrant rights groups frustrated by the halting progress on immigration reform. But her stance is also being applauded for its political acumen – a move that leaves Republicans scrambling to carve out a policy platform on immigration that attracts Latino voters without repelling the party’s base.

“Advocating for a path to citizenship is more than a commonsense solution, which the vast majority of Americans support. It is also a good politically smart position,” said Clarissa Martínez-de-Castro of National Council of La Raza. “Clinton moved in to occupy that space and Republicans are twisting themselves in knots trying to find a different position.”

Martínez-de-Castro, along with other reform advocates, who hope Clinton’s support for a path to citizenship – and the positive reactions she’s received among the community – might force Republican contenders to meet her on immigration.

“She has set the stage and the bar for what they need to match,” she Martínez-de-Castro. “One can only hope that, whoever captures the nomination of the Republican party, that they see the wisdom of comprehensive immigration reform, not only in terms of the winds in the sails of the economy, but frankly that it is a position that a vast majority of Americans support.”

Latinos are the fastest-growing population of the American electorate. Earlier this year, Whit Ayres, a prominent Republican pollster, predicted that Republicans will have to capture 40% of the Latino vote in 2016 to win the presidency. This would require a momentous jump from 2012, when Mitt Romney won a meager 27% of Latinos.

“Make no mistake, not a single Republican candidate announced or potential is clearly supporting a path to citizenship. Not one,” Clinton said on Tuesday. “When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class citizenship.”

But at least one of the Republican candidates did once support a pathway to citizenship.

“A pathway to citizenship is no different than what was included in the bipartisan bill that passed the Senate in 2013,” said Marshall Fitz, the vice-president of immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, which was founded by Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta.

“There’s always going to be questions about how long that path should be and how many hurdles there should be. But any serious proposal for comprehensive immigration reform has included a path to citizenship.”

Clinton’s move is not going to force Republican candidates to come closer to her position on immigration, said Dan Holler, a spokesman for Heritage Action for America, a conservative advocacy group.

“Hillary Clinton did not fundamentally change the playing field in the Republican primary,” Holler said. “No one is going to come out … and embrace a path to citizenship for folks who are in the country illegally. Being a Republican and touting amnesty is just not a proven electoral success.”

Among the Republican contenders and potential hopefuls, Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush have stood out as the most likely to attract Latino voters, based partly on their personal lives – Rubio as the son of Cuban immigrants and Bush as the husband of a Mexican woman – as well as their political stances.

As a member of the bipartisan “gang of eight”, Senator Marco Rubio pushed an omnibus immigration bill through the Senate in 2013 that included a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. The bill eventually died in the House, and since then Rubio has been trying to distance himself from the legislation, saying he would address the issue of what to do with undocumented people who are already here only after the border is “secure”.

Bush has supported an earned legal status of immigrants, and though recently he has become more critical of Obama’s executive action, he has been among the most vocal in his party pushing for immigration reform.

Holler said he predicts that while the Republican candidates will differ on how they plan to deal with the 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the US, they will probably all agree that securing the border is the first priority.

“She is making a very interesting political play,” Holler said. “But the only thing that I think Hillary Clinton did with her speech is marginalize herself in the general election.”

How far is ‘even further’

At the immigration roundtable, Clinton didn’t just support a pathway to citizenship. She went further, outlining what she would do if Congress is still unwilling to act on immigration reform.

She said she would protect Obama’s executive orders, which shield millions from deportation, but also promised to go “even further” than Obama if necessary. But how much further could Clinton really go under the law?

Immigration experts said Obama has by no means exhausted the limits of presidential authority on immigration, and that the next US president has plenty of room to act in big or small ways, should Congress continue to prove obstinate.

“It really depends on how ambitious she wants to be and how many people she wants to benefit from her actions,” said Stephen Yale-Loehr, a professor of immigration law at Cornell Law School.

Yale-Loehr said there are plenty of small, mostly uncontroversial, actions a future president could take to offer temporary relief for small groups of people such as Obama did for the undocumented family members of military men and women.

In contrast, she could also “go big”, he said, by reinterpreting the visa limit. Currently, the number of people admitted includes the principal applicant plus the person’s spouse and children. Yale-Loehr said the law could be interpreted to only count the principal applicant, thereby allowing possibly as much as three times the number of immigrants to receive work and family-based visas to the US.

“Theoretically any administration could make that change,” he said. “But it would be very controversial and would almost certainly bring about litigation.”

But the contentious nature of the immigration debate almost ensures that any actions taken by the president would be face a challenge.

Republicans have equated Obama’s orders – which would allow those who have been in the country for more than five years and meet other criteria the ability to receive deportation relief and apply to work – to an “amnesty” for undocumented migrants and have argued that his action is an abuse of executive power.

In the lawsuit challenging the orders, the Texas attorney general, Greg Abbott, wrote that the president’s job was to “execute the law, not de facto make law”.

Though some may not like it, said Shiu-Ming Cheer, an immigration attorney with National Immigration Law Center, “presidents have pretty broad authority to enforce immigration law, and there are many ways in which the president could decide to that.”

Like Yale-Loehr, Cheer agreed that the most obvious options available to the president include changing the way visas a processed, and the way deportation policies are carried out.

“There’s still a lot of room to make changes in the realm of the immigration system,” Cheer said.

But because executive orders can terminated by the next president, the only way to ensure lasting reform is through Congress.

“A political consensus on how to fix it is much better for the country rather than the executive branch trying to force immigration reform down the throat of an unwilling Congress,” said Yale-Loehr.

A lot will change over the next 18 months as candidates duke it out for the presidency. But for now, immigration advocates, who watched their hope of reform crumble in Congress, are happy to know there’s at least one candidate who won’t let that stand in her way.

“It was important for us to also hear how [Clinton] intends to use the power of the presidency to advance these issues, in the legislative arena and in terms of executive action, if needed,” Martínez-de-Castro of National Council of La Raza.

“Saying how you intend to use the powers that are available to the presidency creates a much more direct line of accountability and that’s exactly what we wanted to hear.”