Reform with Path to Citizenship is the Goal, but What Will She Say about Executive Action?
Ahead of Hillary Clinton’s roundtable discussion in Las Vegas this afternoon, America’s Voice offers five key points regarding the current state of immigration politics and policy.
- Hillary Clinton’s embrace of a full pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants is the consensus Democratic position: In a preview piece ahead of today’s roundtable event, the Washington Post’s Anne Gearan wrote that Clinton’s endorsement of a pathway to citizenship, “puts Clinton on the left side of her own party.” Really? No, not really. The Senate immigration bill, which passed 68-32 in June 2013, gained the support of every single Democrat in the chamber. A companion House version of the legislation, which never received a vote from Republican leadership, attracted the co-sponsorship of virtually all House Democrats. This overwhelming Democratic support for immigration reform with a path to citizenship is a significant change from Hillary Clinton’s days in the Senate. For example, when Senator Clinton backed immigration reform with a path to citizenship in 2007, only 34 of 48 of her Democratic colleagues voted the same way.
- This position is strongly supported by the majority of American voters: Clinton’s views on a path to citizenship for aspiring Americans is popular. Approximately two-thirds of American voters support immigration reform with a path to citizenship when the policy option is presented as such. And when the public is presented with the specific requirements undocumented immigrants have to satisfy in order to earn citizenship over time (pass background checks, pay taxes, study English), public support climbs even higher. By contrast, fewer than 1-in-5 Americans support the congressional Republicans’ dominant view, promoting policies to “identify and deport” immigrants “who are currently living in the U.S. illegally.” And with respect to the “secure the border first” position adopted by most in the 2016 Republican field, a September 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 52% of voters believe the “border security first” line is an excuse to block immigration reform vs. 40% who view it as a legitimate answer. Among Latino voters, 64% see it as an excuse to block reform with a path to citizenship. Meanwhile, 2016 Republicans hinting at legalization without a guaranteed path to citizenship are touting an idea that is in search of a constituency. The results of a recent study of some 40,000 poll respondents from Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) found that only 17% support legalization without citizenship (while 60% of the public supports a path to citizenship and 19% support a deportation-focused policy for undocumented immigrants in America).
- The new Democratic consensus on immigration reflects the party’s grasp of the new politics of immigration: lean in to pro-immigrant reforms and win: The old Democratic school of thought on immigration held it as a divisive wedge issue that should be avoided, and, if you had to discuss it, the recommendation was that candidates should talk like “enforcement-first” Republicans. This view was best captured by Rahm Emanuel’s infamous 2007 statement that described immigration as the “third rail of American politics.” The new Democratic thinking on immigration recognizes that leaning into the issue and assertively promoting pro-immigrant policies is also good politics, because it helps to energize and turn out Latino and other pro-immigrant voters and draws sharp contrasts with Republicans in the process.
- Lessons from recent elections underscore the importance of this “new” Democratic thinking and leaning into immigration: The 2008, 2010, and 2012election cycles provide compelling evidence that leaning into pro-immigrant policies and politics benefits Democrats (click on the year above for detailed post-election analysis). In the 2008 election cycle, Barack Obama won 67%-31% among Latino voters nationwide, in large part because of the tarnished Republican brand image on immigration. In addition, in 20 of 22 of the most competitive races for the House of Representatives, voters elected pro-immigration reform candidates over opponents opposed to it. In 2010, the successful Senate Democratic campaigns of Harry Reid in Nevada and Michael Bennet in Colorado helped save the Senate for Democrats and provided a template for how Democrats could mobilize fast-growing groups of voters by leaning into immigration issues and drawing sharp contrasts with Republican opponents. President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign took this “lean in” model to a new level on the national stage. His June 2012 announcement of the DACA program for Dreamers changed the trajectory of the election. The move ignited Latino voter enthusiasm, thrilled progressives and helped President Obama and down-ballot Democrats run up huge margins among Latinoand Asian-American voters.
In 2014, Democrats learned the opposite lesson, the hard way. They backtracked on immigration, and paid the price. After President Obama promised in June 2014 to take executive action on immigration ahead of the mid-term elections, he came under pressure from swing state Senate Democrats and decided to delay immigration executive action. Not only did this fail to save any of the Senators in tough swing states, the resulting Latino voter apathy in Colorado helped Republican Cory Gardner beat Democrat Mark Udall in a race that favored Udall. The delay also hurt the Democratic candidate in a range of House and gubernatorialcontests that could have tilted Democratic with greater Latino turnout. When President Obama finally did announce the long-awaited immigration executive actions, in November 2014, his popularity rebounded among Latino voters but it was too late for candidates in Latino-influenced races.
- Immigration reform is the goal, but executive action is the hot topic right now: Immigrant advocates mostly agree: ultimately we need to pass through Congress immigration reform with a path to citizenship in order to find a permanent solution to our broken immigration system and protect the 11 million undocumented immigrants settled in America. Advocates are working to create a new opportunity to move such legislation in 2017. However, until the House flips or Republicans have a change of heart, a legislative fix may remain a heavy lift. That is why executive action has emerged as the most immediate way to change lives for the better. The entire Republican presidential field is opposed to immigration executive action (and Republicans spent their first months with a dual chamber congressional majority on a failed crusade to block executive action). After some reticence to comment on it before the President acted, Hillary Clinton now backs immigration executive action. But she has yet to outline details about how she would protect, fully implement and even potentially expand these programs if she was elected (NOTE: We expect the courts ultimately to uphold the legality of immigration executive action).
According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice, “Today’s event will reveal whether or not Hillary Clinton plans to lean into the issue of immigration. After a rocky book tour that featured some rusty responses, we are pleased she is meeting directly with affected immigrants and making immigration reform a priority. But we’ll go from pleased to thrilled if she leans in aggressively and promises to defend, extend and expand on the executive action announced by President Obama. We’ll be ecstatic if she promises to revisit the current Administration’s controversial family detention policy for mothers and young children fleeing Central American violence.”
Read up on Hillary Clinton’s immigration record with America’s Voice’s candidate backgrounder: http://americasvoice.org/research/meet-the-2016-democratic-candidates-for-president-and-their-positions-on-immigration/
Check out the full set of America’s Voice 2016 materials, analysis, and candidate tracking: http://americasvoice.org/2016