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Ahead of 2016 Democratic Debate: What A Difference A Movement Makes

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Tonight is the first Democratic debate. It’s taking place in Las Vegas. Today, The Guardian underscored the importance of Latino voters and the immigration issue in Nevada:

More than 7% of Nevada’s 2.8 million residents are undocumented immigrants. That is the largest percentage in the country, and it’s also the reason Obama has announced all of his immigration measures in Las Vegas.

David Damore, a pollster for Latino Decisions, said immigration reform remains the priority for registered Hispanic voters nationwide because two-thirds of them have family, friends or coworkers who are unauthorized immigrants. “It’s a very personal issue,” he said.

Against that backdrop, the Democratic candidates will take the stage – and what we expect to hear from them stands in stark contrast to the anti-immigrant rhetoric that’s become a staple of the GOP nominating contest.

For months, Republicans have been taking shots at Latinos and immigrants to score cheap political points with the nativists in their base. With the #TrumpEffect on full display, it seems that the GOP is determined to ignore, repeat, and even expand upon the lessons of their “self-deportation” disaster in 2012.

New Pew Research polling shows that Republican politicians remain outside of the mainstream on the issue of immigration.  In contrast, the Democratic slate is unanimously in support of a path to citizenship for aspiring Americans, and interim measures like DACA and DAPA.  There are key policy differences among the candidates that we hope the debate will explore.  But on the core issues, they all agree with the broader electorate and us.  This is a huge victory for the immigration movement, and it wasn’t always the case.    

In December of 2007, Rahm Emanuel famously said that immigration is the “third rail” of American politics.  His message to Democrats at the time (and, it is widely believed, to President Obama in the first two years of his presidency): touch immigration reform and you lose.  The “Rahm” school of thought emphasized that immigration was an issue to avoid and if you had to discuss the issue, the conversation should mimic the rhetoric of Republicans.

Around the same time, Hillary Clinton tripped up on the immigration issue during a debate when asked about then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to allow drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants. During that debate, on October 30, 2007, Clinton appeared to give conflicting, equivocating answers, for which she was called out by other candidates.

Since then, immigration and its intersection with the Latino, Asian-American and immigrant vote has been a factor in every election cycle, with the pro-immigrant voter making a deeper and deeper mark.  

Takeaways from the 2008 election cycle provided evidence that leaning into pro-immigrant policies and politics benefited Democrats.  For example, America’s Voice looked at the 22 House and Senate races ranked by the Cook Political Report as competitive one month before the 2008 election where there was a clear difference between Democratic candidates who favored comprehensive immigration reform, and Republican candidates who opposed it.  Twenty of the 22 eventual winners were pro-immigration reform Democrats.  At the presidential level, President Obama won five 2008 battleground states that George W. Bush had won twice (CO, FL, NM, NV, and VA), in large part because of Obama’s overwhelming support from Latino voters (67%-31% overall over John McCain, after the Republican brand image had been tarnished by the GOP’s efforts to scuttle immigration reform in Congress during the George W. Bush’s second term).

Democrats experienced the benefits of a “lean in” immigration strategy in 2010 and 2012. But Democrats backtracked during the 2014 midterm election cycle and paid the price with low turnout from Latino voters.  After the most recent mid-terms, Democrats’ standing among Latino voters rebounded in the aftermath of President Obama’s long-awaited executive action announcement (and as Democrats stood up to Republicans, who have engaged in full-throttle attempts to overturn this progress).  In 2016, maximizing voter turnout among these members of the new American electorate will be crucial to Democrats’ success up and down the ballot.

The Democratic candidates understand that they have to lean in. Earlier this year, also in Nevada, Hillary Clinton laid out her immigration agenda, which included strong support for a path to citizenship and expanded executive actions. In July, Martin O’Malley, the former Governor of Maryland also outlined a detailed immigration plan.  That same month, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders released his immigration agenda.

Hillary Clinton’s October 2015 interview with Telemundo shows a clear evolution on immigration for her, as a candidate.  Frank Sharry had this to say:

“Hillary Clinton is engaging in some long overdue straight talk on immigration reform.  First, she’s right when she calls out President Obama’s strategy of ramping up deportations – over 2 million in 6 years, more than any other President in history – in an attempt to gain Republican support for comprehensive immigration reform.  It failed as a political strategy, and succeeded only in destroying millions of families.  Second, she’s right to call out Republicans for being unreliable partners in the push for reform.  Third, she’s right to focus on the human cost of harsh enforcement.  We are talking about Americans in all but paperwork, and instead of coddling Republicans with stronger enforcement, she is promising to use executive authority to keep parents with children and reduce the fear of deportation until Congress passes reform.

“Clinton has had her share of missteps on immigration in the past: in 2008 she was for and then against driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants; during her 2014 book tour she said Central American minors fleeing violence should be sent back, and it took her weeks to clarify that kids fleeing violence should first have a chance to make their case for protection in the U.S.; and in response to a question regarding Obama’s 2014 pre-midterm delay in announcing executive action, a delay that came at the behest of Democrats, she said the answer is to, well, elect more Democrats.  Her comments yesterday, however, were clear, strong and positive.”

But, as members of our movement are pointing out, Clinton and the rest of the Democratic field didn’t get here on her own.  They got here because immigrants, allies, grassroots, grasstops, and others pressed politicians to support us both in word and deed.  We’ve learned that campaign promises are just that, campaign promises, unless we hold politicians to account.  It’s important that the Democratic 2016 candidates are all making strong commitments to the pro-immigrant electorate.  But what’s more important is the fact that the pro-immigrant electorate will hold these politicians accountable.

That’s the difference a movement makes.