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Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton entered the 2016 Presidential race this past weekend, and where she stands on both immigration reform in Congress and executive action by the President will determine whether Latino voters tune in to her campaign or tune her out.
There’s no question that Latinos have been trending Democratic in recent years. But for Secretary Clinton and other Democratic candidates, winning a majority of Latino voters is not enough. She has to win the largest share possible—and turn out the largest number of voters available. And the way she does this is by leaning in — hard — to immigration.
As Latino Decisions has consistently noted, immigration is a “gateway” issue for Latino voters. When 58% of Latino voters know someone who is undocumented, and another 85% of undocumented immigrants report having a U.S. citizen relative, immigration isn’t an abstract policy debate, it’s about families. It’s personal. And Democrats who lean in to the issue, hard, are able to motivate this base of support. Those who don’t, of course, suffer the consequences. Just ask Harry Reid, who learned this lesson the right way in 2010, and former Senator Mark Udall, who learned it the hard way in 2014.
With the current crop of Republican 2016ers all opposed to Obama’s executive action on immigration, Clinton would appear to have a head start. But she still has a long way to go to reach and motivate the Latino electorate. While Clinton immediately tweeted her support following the President’s 2014 immigration move, she has not indicated if she will renew and expand on these actions as President. And, according to polling from Latino Decisions, her support among Latino voters hinges on clearly embracing and committing to pro-immigrant policies.
“When told that Clinton would renew the executive action in 2017 if elected President, 85% of Latinos say they would support her compared to 11% who would not. This includes 73% of Latino Independents and 56% of Latino Republicans who would support Mrs. Clinton.
However, when told that Clinton might let the executive action expire and not renew it if elected, only 37% of Latinos say they would support her while 55% would not. This includes 53% of Latino Democrats who said they would be unlikely to support Mrs. Clinton if she did not commit to renewing the executive action.”
Following the news of Clinton’s official candidacy, leading groups echoed the need for the Secretary to show leadership on immigration.
“Our community expects any Presidential contender to aggressively defend and expand deferred action and make a firm commitment to reduce deportations, reform the out-of-control immigration enforcement agencies and use the full power of their presidency to advance and pass legislation to give citizenship to our entire community.”
“For 4-5 million people with strong connections to the country and large voting communities who support them, whether that tweet indicates a support for this policy that will actually translate into continuing or even expanding it DAPA [sic] is their biggest question; for immigrant communities, it’s the litmus test, and we could use an unambiguous statement that cannot be ‘evolved’ on.”
While Clinton voted for the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform as a U.S. Senator, and garnered wide support from Latinos during her previous presidential run (she received 63% of the Latino vote in the 16 Super Tuesday contests), it’s unclear if she is up to speed on the politics of immigration today. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) was a political win for Obama in the 2012 campaign, garnering support from general voters and motivating Latinos. Immigration stands play a similar role in 2016, and it’s not enough to be the better alternative. She will have to prove that she recognizes the central role this issue plays in Latino, Asian-American, and immigrant families and make her commitment to action specific and convincing.
In her initial foray into the immigration issue as a budding 2016 candidate, while on her book tour in June of 2014 during the child refugee crisis on the border, Secretary Clinton stated that the minors fleeing violence “should be sent back.” That statement struck immigration reform advocates as tone deaf, as did her September 2014 admonition to Iowa DREAMers concerned about executive action: “You know I think we need to elect more Democrats.“
As Frank Sharry told the New York Times: “Immigration is not the only issue, but it is the defining issue, and [Clinton] will need to learn that the old lines and old dynamics no longer apply.”
As Clinton steps on to the playing field, she’ll be forced to clarify a lot about where she stands on immigration and what she’d do about it, as President. Voters are watching.