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Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at a campaign stop in Reno, Nev. (Photo: James Glover II/Reuters)
Hillary Clinton addressed criticism of her use of the phrase “illegal immigrants” in a Facebook chat hosted by the Spanish-language television network Telemundo on Tuesday.
The Democratic presidential frontrunner said it was a “poor choice of words” and vowed not to use the same language in the future.
Clinton used the term at a campaign event in New Hampshire earlier this month when she was asked her thoughts on securing the border with Mexico to prevent undocumented immigrants from coming over. She responded by referring to her support for a border fence as a member of the U.S. Senate from January 2001 until early 2009.
“Look, I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in. And I do think you have to control your borders,” Clinton said.
Clinton’s comments drew criticism from pro-immigration advocates who prefer the term “undocumented immigrants.” She was asked about the phrase in the Facebook chat on Tuesday by Jose Antonio Vargas, an activist whose group is mounting a campaign called “#WordsMatter” to get presidential candidates to promise not to use the phrase “illegal immigrants.”
“On behalf of the organization I founded, Define American, and the 11.7 million undocumented immigrants in this country — including myself — I am asking all the presidential candidates to recognize that #wordsmatter by committing to not using the term ‘illegal’ when referencing the undocumented population. Will you make that commitment?” Vargas asked.
Clinton agreed to stop saying “illegal immigrants” and pointed to her support for immigration reform.
“Yes, I will. That was a poor choice of words. As I’ve said throughout this campaign, the people at the heart of this issue are children, parents, families, DREAMers. They have names, and hopes and dreams that deserve to be respected,” Clinton wrote, adding, “I’ve talked about undocumented immigrants hundreds of times and fought for years for comprehensive immigration reform. And I will continue to do so. We are a country built by immigrants and our diversity makes us stronger as a nation — it’s something to be proud of, celebrate, and defend.”
Over the course of her campaign, Clinton has promised to go beyond President Obama’s executive actions that shielded about 4 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.
In an email to Yahoo News, Vargas said he is “hopeful” Clinton will stand by her pledge.
“I am hopeful that Hillary Clinton will stand by her word. And I am hopeful that her fellow candidates, from both parties, will make the same pledge. Words matter,” Vargas said.
Vargas, who noted that he has participated in over 400 events around the country since launching his group in 2011, went on to explain his objection to the term “illegal immigrant.”
“To many Americans I talk to, ‘illegal’ has become synonymous with ‘Mexican,’ as if all undocumented people are from Mexico (they are not — I’m from the Philippines), as if all of Latin America is Mexico (it is not), as if there is something wrong with being Mexican,” Vargas said. “Those words are offensive and hurtful. Words Matter because words and phrases like ‘illegals,’ ‘illegal aliens,’ and ‘illegal immigrants’ frame the conversation, how politicians talk about the issue, and inevitably how policies are created.”
During the Telemundo Facebook chat, Clinton was also asked her reaction to Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane. Turkish officials have said the plane, which was participating in strikes over Syria, violated their airspace. Clinton did not answer that question.