Hillary Clinton presses advantage on immigration

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Hillary Clinton talks immigration reform with 9th grade student Betsaida Frausto in Las Vegas. (Photo: Mike Blake/Reuters)

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton sought to seize an advantage over Republicans Tuesday on the issue of immigration, accusing those who talk of “legal status” of wanting to denigrate undocumented immigrants.

“When they talk about legal status, that is code for second class status,” Clinton said at a small event in Las Vegas, where she conducted a conversation with six young Latino residents of Nevada.

Clinton said that if elected president, she would “go even further” than President Obama has in granting provisional legal status to millions of undocumented immigrants, saying that she would extend protections Obama gave to young people who entered the nation before the age of 16 — called DREAMers — to their parents.

“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.

But her sharpest barb was the one aimed at the Republicans running for president in 2016, among whom, she said, there is not one person who has been “clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship.”

“Not one,” she said.

That’s only accurate if you don’t include Republicans still mulling a run, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who continues to argue vociferously for citizenship for a broad swath of the undocumented population. But most of the Republican field — those who have declared and those who are exploring a run — has shied away from promising citizenship and is focused on the term “legal status” instead.

Some, like former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush — who is not yet a formal candidate — refuse to say the word “citizenship,” even if they’ve spoken out extensively on behalf of immigrants. When asked by Yahoo News whether Bush’s talk of “earned legal status” would exclude the possibility of citizenship, Bush spokesman Tim Miller sent a block quote of Bush’s past comments on the issue, which didn’t address the question. When pressed, Miller said Bush was for “earned legal status.”

And then there is Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. — the most prominent Republican to argue now and in the past for a path to citizenship. Rubio now talks of giving undocumented immigrants who have not broken any laws the opportunity to apply for “permanent residency” after paying a fine, verifying they can speak English, and spending “a significant amount of time” in the country under a “nonpermanent work visa.” But in his most recent discussion of this matter last week in Washington, Rubio also avoided the word citizenship, except for at the moment when he talked about past attempts at immigration reform.

“The past experiences show us, the [19]86 bill that passed during the Reagan years, a large percentage of the people who received that amnesty at that time have never become citizens at all,” Rubio said during a discussion at a National Review summit.

Last year, Rubio made a comment on an Iowa radio station that further confused his position, which the Clinton campaign passed on as an example of the Republican senator’s past lack of clarity on the issue.

“What do you do with millions of people in this country who are here illegally? What do you do about it?” Rubio said on the radio show. “And I think that the couple of things we’re not going to do — we’re not going to award citizenship to people or give them a benefit they wouldn’t otherwise have.”

One way to interpret this comment is that Rubio was arguing against giving citizenship immediately to undocumented immigrants in a way that allowed them to obtain full legal status before others who have sought to enter the country legally and have waited for years.

When asked Tuesday evening whether Rubio’s plan would lead to citizenship, spokesman Alex Conant said, “Under current law, permanent residence is first step towards citizenship. We wouldn’t change that.”

Clinton praised the bipartisan group of eight senators, which included Rubio as a member, who helped the Senate pass an immigration reform bill in the summer of 2013, and criticized House Speaker John Boehner for not putting the issue up for a vote in the lower chamber.

“I think it would have passed had they taken it up, but the leadership in the House decided politically they didn’t want to do that because they have people who are strongly opposed to comprehensive immigration reform,” Clinton said.

And she tweaked Rubio, without mentioning his name, by noting that although it was the right thing in her opinion for the senators who spearheaded the Senate effort to push for immigration reform, “I guess some of them are paying a political price for it now.”

Clinton is all too aware of the strong anti-immigration reform sentiments among some of the most passionate elements of the Republican base, and is eager to highlight the difference between herself and the GOP during this phase when the Republican candidates are catering more to the conservative grassroots of their party, which dominates in primary states, than to general election, middle-of-the-road voters.

“You know where I stand, and there can be no question about it,” she said.

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