LAS VEGAS (AP) — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton intends to draw an early distinction with Republicans on illegal immigration, pointing to a pathway to citizenship as an essential part of any overhaul in Congress.
Clinton was laying the foundation of her immigration agenda Tuesday in her first stop in Nevada since launching her presidential campaign. After years of delays in Congress, Latinos and immigration activists are watching Clinton’s statements closely for signs of how she might break a legislative logjam on immigration and whether she would extend President Barack Obama’s executive actions to shield millions of immigrants from deportation.
“We hope that she leans in and really issues a challenge on the issue,” said Clarissa Martínez-De-Castro, deputy vice president of the National Council of La Raza.
Clinton has backed Obama’s unsuccessful pitch for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, including a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, and supported his announcement last year halting deportations of certain immigrants.
The issue could be pivotal in the 2016 presidential race. Obama received strong support from Hispanic voters during his two presidential bids and immigration turned into a stumbling block for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who received only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012 and struggled in battleground states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada where Latinos are influential.
Clinton was meeting on Cinco de Mayo with young people at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, where about 70 percent of the student body is Hispanic.
Previewing her remarks, Clinton’s campaign said she would say that a true fix to the nation’s immigration system would need to include a “full and equal path to citizenship” and the nation shouldn’t settle for proposals that would provide hard-working people with a “second-class” status.
Republicans sought to portray Clinton as opportunistic on the issue.
“Obviously she’s pretty good at pandering and flipping and flopping and doing and saying anything she needs to say,” said Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus at an event with Hispanic Republicans in Denver.
Many Republicans have opposed a comprehensive bill that includes a path to citizenship, saying any reforms must be made incrementally, beginning with stronger border security. Clinton’s event in Nevada comes as some of her potential Republican rivals, such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, have courted Hispanics and outlined steps to overhaul immigration.
At a conference of Hispanic evangelicals last week, Bush said immigrants living in the U.S. illegally should have an opportunity to attain legal status under certain conditions. Bush, who speaks Spanish fluently and is married to a Mexican-American, said such immigrants should be required to pay taxes and work and should not receive government benefits.
Rubio, who is Cuban-American, worked on a failed bipartisan immigration bill that proposed a lengthy pathway to citizenship for those living in the country illegally. The measure cleared the Senate but was blocked by conservatives in the House.
Rubio has said the bill doesn’t have enough support to become law and an immigration overhaul should first focus on border security. The senator ultimately wants to create a process that leads to legal status and citizenship.
Obama’s executive orders, meanwhile, loom large in the immigration debate. GOP presidential candidates have said they would overturn the orders, which included the expansion of a program protecting young immigrants from deportation if they were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Another provision extended deportation protections to parents of U.S. citizens and permanent residents who have been in the country for several years.
Twenty-six states, including Nevada, have sued to block the plan, and a New Orleans-based 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel heard arguments on the challenges last month. A ruling is pending.
For Clinton, “the $64 million question is will she continue the executive actions,” said Marielena Hincapie, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center. Activists are also watching how she would address the opening of family detention centers by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
During the 2008 primaries, Clinton was tripped up by immigration policy when she initially vacillated on and then opposed allowing immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to obtain driver’s licenses. Her campaign said last month she now supports state policies that allow driver’s licenses under those circumstances.
Clinton was spending the day in Nevada and attending a suburban Las Vegas fundraiser before opening a three-day fundraising trip to California. Nevada holds an early contest on the Democratic primary calendar and has been a battleground state in recent presidential elections. Clinton won the 2008 Democratic caucuses there but Obama came away with a slight edge in the number of delegates because of his strength in rural areas.