Maribel Hastings is a Senior Advisor to America’s Voice:
This electoral season has brought another twist to the debate and the fight over immigration reform: it is no longer enough to know whether or not the candidates support immigration reform and a path to citizenship. A candidate’s position regarding the president’s executive actions on immigration – including the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as well as the 2014 DACA expansion and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability program that are currently under court review – are significant factors not only for immigrants who have or could benefit from those actions, but also for Latino voters who share ties of family, friendship, and empathy to the immigrant community.
It’s no coincidence that last week Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton traveled to Las Vegas, Nevada to meet with a group of young immigrants and declare her support for immigration reform with a path to citizenship. Clinton hoped to draw a line between her position and that of at least two Republican hopefuls – Marco Rubio, who has declared his intention to run, and Jeb Bush, who is expected to soon do so. Both have said previously they support some type of immigration reform. But it’s not clear what that means. Are they promoting legalization without citizenship? “When they talk about legal status, that’s code for second-class status,” Clinton said.
The rest of the Republican field remains opposed to immigration reform, which they call “amnesty.” And no Republican candidate, including Bush and Rubio, has proposed a real solution for the more than 11 million undocumented immigrants that remain in limbo. Bush and Rubio admit they don’t think everyone should or can be deported, but the rest seem to wish that was the case.
Nor is it coincidence that Clinton offered a vigorous defense of the executive actions and said she would go even further than President Obama if Republicans continue to block immigration legislation in Congress. “There are more people like many parents of DREAMers and others with deep ties and contributions to our communities who deserve to stay, and I will fight for them,” Clinton said.
Here the contrast is clear: total opposition to the executive immigration actions is the common denominator for all of the potential Republican candidates.
It’s likely that some Republicans will take Clinton’s bait and will react to her comments with the same tired, xenophobic rants that have alienated Latino voters.
And although Bush, if he finally announces, and Rubio may try to appeal to Latino voters, there’s one major thing they will have going against them – the lasting negative image of the Republican Party itself. Months of Republican primary candidates declaring opposition to comprehensive immigration reform and the executive actions will only serve to reinforce that bad image.
So far, several polls show Clinton, the presumed Democratic nominee, with a wide lead over Bush and Rubio among Latino voters. She also leads in samples of all voters, though not by the same double-digit margin she has with Hispanics.
There’s still a lot that will play out in this election cycle, which is bad news for the ultimate Republican nominee because what appeals to their base in the primary may scare off other voters – including Hispanics – in the general election.
That said, nothing is fully guaranteed. The primary is one thing and the general election is another, especially in the final stages, when voters begin to pay more attention.
By now the Democratic side must understand the difficult consequences of making immigration promises that, for whatever reason, don’t materialize. After Obama’s victory in 2008, immigrants and the Latino voters that support them didn’t just see their hopes of comprehensive immigration reform vanish under harsh Republican opposition. They also saw the deportation machine intensify. The second Obama administration introduced DACA in 2012, but only after they were pressured to do so by DREAMers. The DACA expansion and the DAPA program were announced in 2014, but haven’t yet been implemented since Republican governors challenged those actions in court.
Clinton wisely hasn’t promised any timeline, especially given that immigration reform with a path to citizenship may not be feasible in the short term if Congress remains under Republican control after the next election. Republicans in Congress have devoted themselves to obstructing progress on the issue, echoing excuses of “border security first” without explaining who would determine whether the border is secure and when.
That’s why the new standard demands two immigration promises from candidates: immigration reform, and failing that, executive actions. But it’s complicated. Though constitutional, the executive actions have been bogged down in litigation and the final outcome is uncertain.
In matters of immigration, the new election cycle is again spurring Republican attacks and Democratic promises to Latino voters who don’t expect much from Republicans but hope that the dual immigration promises from Democrats will finally result in something tangible.