Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton sharply challenged Sen. Bernie Sanders’s credentials as an advocate for immigration reform Thursday night as the two rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination made stirring appeals to Hispanic voters ahead of Saturday’s Nevada caucuses.
Clinton accused Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, of having a mixed record on immigration reform during decades of service in the House and Senate. In 2007, Sanders was part of a liberal-labor coalition that helped kill a bipartisan immigration overhaul bill, arguing that it would drive down wages for lower-income workers in the U.S.
“Well, when we both had a chance to vote on comprehensive immigration reform in 2007, the bill that Sen. Ted Kennedy championed, I voted for it and Sen. Sanders voted against it,” Clinton said during a nationally televised town hall meeting. Pressed on whether she would make immigration a top priority in the first 100 days of her administration, Clinton replied, “Absolutely…. I will introduce my priority legislation and this is at the top of that list.”
With polls suggesting a very tight contest between the two Democratic rivals on Saturday, Sanders made his case to Hispanics and other minorities during his joint appearance with Clinton in a Las Vegas town hall meeting simultaneously broadcast nationally by MSNBC and Telemundo, the Spanish-speaking network.
Coming off his recent 22-point victory over Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, Sanders has managed to cut deeply into Clinton’s following among Nevada’s influential Hispanic voters – especially Millennials – who make up more than 17 percent of the state’s electorate. Sanders has done that with promises of a social, economic and political “revolution” and comprehensive immigration reform and a promise of amnesty with a path to citizenship – an approach that has been repeatedly beaten down in the Republican controlled House.
Sanders said he opposed the 2007 immigration bill because it was highly flawed and included a guest-worker provision that labor and Hispanic groups “saw almost akin to slavery.”
“I don’t want to see workers in this country exploited, but I did vote for the 2013” comprehensive immigration reform bill in the Senate that included a way for millions of undocumented workers to achieve legal status and apply for citizens, he said. That controversial measure died in the House because of its amnesty provision.
“Let me say this more importantly, I want to take 11 million undocumented people in this country out of the shadows, out of the fears they are experiencing every single day,” Sanders said. “I want Congress to do its job.”
But Clinton, a former New York senator from 2001 to 2009, belittled Sanders’ record on immigration reform and cast herself as a long time champion of immigration reform – including her support of the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) act that was first introduced in August 2001.
“I have to tell you, I will do what I can as president,” she said. “I’m hoping that if we win back the Senate and we win the White House again, the Republicans are going to see the error of their ways and quit using immigrants to divide our country and quit taking the kind of mean-spirited actions that they do.”
“You know, I was the first person to call out Donald Trump,” she said. “I said busto, enough of this prejudice.”
She also promised to end the so-called “three- and ten-year bars,” provisions of the immigration law, which prohibit applicants from returning to the United States after leaving to apply for a green card if they were previously in the U.S. illegally -- even if they have left behind children and spouses. “We’ve got to get rid of it,” she said, prompting an enthusiastic response from the audience.
They never shared the stage during the two-hour town hall forum hosted by Chuck Todd and Jose Diaz-Balart, but Sanders and Clinton each anticipated the others line of attack in attempting to gain the upper ground.
Although Sanders is a relative late comer to the immigration reform movement, he has artfully pivoted from his standard anti-Wall Street, anti-establishment themes to promises of substantial interest to Latino and black voters.
Those include raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, free college tuition, reforms of the criminal justice and sentencing system that discriminate against minorities, and cracking down on police violence against minorities.
“Police officers should look like the diversity of the communities that they are serving,” he said. “There’s a whole lot that has to be done.”
Both Clinton and Sanders oppose the Obama administration’s most recent move in early January to arrest and deport Central American immigrant families, despite a major outcry from immigrant advocacy groups and Democratic leaders.
When asked what his criteria would be for deporting illegal immigrants if he is elected president, Sanders replied that it would not be used in dealing with non-violent type crimes.”
“If somebody is a violent criminal they should be deported,” he said. “But my own view is that our policy as a nation – what I believe – is that we should unite families, we should not divide families.”