Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner and former New York senator, came to friendly territory on Monday to champion the cause of the foreign-born at an annual immigrant advocacy conference held blocks from her national headquarters in Brooklyn.
Though the setting was New York, Clinton was clearly speaking to residents of swing states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Florida and Ohio, each with large populations of recent immigrants when the issue of immigration reform is often a litmus test for political support.
At the annual National Immigrant Integration Conference, which advocates economic, cultural and social assimilation for the nation’s foreign-born, Clinton said comprehensive immigration reform could add “hundreds of billions of dollars” to the nation’s economy. Clinton also said she supported President Obama’s executive orders from Nov. 2014 that would have provided protection from deportation and work permits for up to five million undocumented immigrants.
In a setback to the plan, a federal court in Texas issued an order in February that is likely to block the implementation of programs designed to curb actions that would separate families. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on Obama’s executive orders sometime in the spring of 2016.
On the eve of a Republican debate in Nevada on Tuesday, hosted by CNN, the former secretary of state denounced GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s recent call to ban Muslims in the wake of the mass murder in San Bernardino earlier this month as well as his earlier labeling of Mexicans immigrants as criminal and rapists.
“We are hearing all kinds of anti-immigrant sentiment in the news right now,” she told a packed hotel ballroom of roughly 1,000 people in downtown Brooklyn. “Candidates for president are calling immigrants drug runners and rapists. They promise if elected to round up and deport millions of people, build a mammoth wall, militarize the border and tear families apart.
“I want to put an end to families being torn apart, or hard-working law-abiding parents having to prepare their kids for the day that Mom or Dad are taken away. That’s why I still passionately support comprehensive immigration reform legislation as a path to full and equal citizenship.”
Clinton also chided Republican presidential candidate Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for backing away from such a bill, the 2013 Immigration Modernization Act, which passed the Senate but failed in the House of Representatives, a victim of Republican leaders opposed to its citizenship provisions for many of the country’s roughly 11.3 million unauthorized immigrants.
That bill, Clinton said, had the support of a wide range of political groups, from labor unions to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
“Not a single Republican candidate consistently supports a real path to citizenship,” she said. “Rubio actually helped to write the Senate bill and now he moves away from it. They’re always moving toward the extreme and away from the rest of America.”
A Pew Research Center survey conducted in May showed that 72% of Americans said undocumented immigrants living in the U.S. should be allowed to stay in the country legally as long as certain requirements were met. The numbers climbed to 80% of Democrats, 76% of independents and 56% of Republicans.
Even as Latinos were credited with helping to re-elect President Obama in 2012, foreign-born citizens as a voting bloc are expected to play an even larger role in determining both the Democratic nominee and the next president. Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley are scheduled to speak on Tuesday at the conference, which brings together immigrant advocates from around the country as well as people from labor union, municipalities large and small, religious denominations, think tanks and universities.
For Theo Oshiro, deputy director of Make the Road New York, a social and economic advocacy group based in Queens, New York, the conference marked a critical step in helping to establish immigrants as political power.
“There’s been a lot of negative things said about immigrants recently but there’s also others who see that immigrants contribute a great deal to the country,” Oshiro said following Clinton’s 20-minute speech. “If you want to have any staying power politically you need to address immigrants and those who work for immigrants. It says a lot about this moment that this conference had gotten more influence.”
Clinton sought as well to counter the Republican argument that granting asylum to undocumented immigrants would be tantamount to rewarding people for entering or remaining in the country illegally. She called for steps to differentiate between criminals and children covered by the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as the Dream Act.
That legislation, which was also a target of the Texas federal court order, provides opportunities for undocumented children to remain in the country without fear of deportation though it doesn’t grant a path to legalization and citizenship.
“If you work hard and you love this country and you contribute to it and want nothing more than to build a good future for yourselves and your children, we should give you a way to come forward and become a citizen,” Clinton said. “The majority of Americans agree, they know it’s the right thing to do.”