As easily as it is to remember Ronald Reagan and the far reaching amnesty law of 1986 when hundreds of thousands of immigrants regularized their status in the U.S. -- it is also easy to forget the "very ugly" immigration law passed in 1996. It was during the Clinton Administration that one of the harshest anti-immigration laws in the 20th century was approved.
The National Immigration Law Center states in a report:
The draconian restrictions on immigrants' rights imposed by the 1996 welfare and immigration laws have created an unprecedented demand for NILC's services. In response, NILC has doubled its staff and number of offices and forged new alliances. The 1996 laws targeted low income immigrants for the laws' harshest treatment, making it more difficult for immigrants to reunite with family members, obtain work, and receive the health care and other services they need to support their families.
Immigration Policy: Will the Real Senator Clinton Please Stand Up?
One of the major media narratives since the Nevada caucuses, when entrance polls showed Clinton winning widely among Hispanic-Americans (64 percent to 25 for Obama), has been the presumption that the New York senator had the Latino vote similarly locked up on Tsunami Tuesday in California and other states.The news that Ted Kennedy (and most of his organization) is now backing Obama has spurred a second look. The presumption that Clinton has been a leader on immigrant rights - spun heavily by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other surrogates - is not withstanding scrutiny of her actual record.
Add to that spin the way in which the race card has been deployed in recent weeks to divide Latino from black - I wrote about that in detail after witnessing those divide-and-conquer politics at work in Nevada - and previous assumptions about Clinton as an immigrant rights defender have begun to unravel in a way that could have consequences in the February 5 primaries and caucuses.
It's one thing to mouth slogans like "no woman is illegal" as Clinton did in Nevada earlier this month. But according to today's New York Sun, Clinton's true position is that some women and men are so "illegal" that she favors deporting them without any of the due process that the US Constitution guarantees:"Anybody who committed a crime in this country or in the country they came from has to be deported immediately, with no legal process. They are immediately gone," Mrs. Clinton told a town hall meeting in Anderson, S.C., Thursday. On Wednesday, she told a crowd in North Bergen, N.J., that such criminals "absolutely" need to be deported. A day earlier, she told a rally in Salinas, Calif., that aliens with criminal records "should be deported, no questions asked."...
"No legal process," the New York senator said at a forum in Tipton, Iowa, according to a political news outlet, the Politico. "You put them on a plane to wherever they came from."
This has provoked important immigrant rights organizations and advocates - including perhaps the most important, Cecilia Muñoz, to correct the record:"It's disturbing that she would make a statement like that, that we should deport everybody without due process of law," a vice president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, David Leopold, said. "That's a very disturbing statement. This country is all about due process of law."
"It is worrisome," an official with the National Council of La Raza, Cecilia Muñoz, said. "The semantics and nuances make or break families. As you can imagine, the sensitivity on these issues in the Latino community is very high."
...One subtext to the concern is that immigrant-rights advocates are still angry with President Clinton over legislation he signed in 1996 that effectively stripped judges of the power to block the deportation of foreigners convicted of an "aggravated felony." The term was broadly defined and has led to automatic deportations even for what some might consider minor offenses.
"How about two public urinations? How about driving a car recklessly and your sister dies in the passenger seat and you get deported for that?" a law professor at the University of California at Davis, Bill Hing, said...
While Mrs. Clinton's campaign stressed that she was referring to illegal aliens who commit crimes, it did not reply to a query about whether she favors automatic deportation of legal immigrants who run afoul of the law. In 2001, Mr. Kennedy introduced a bill to overturn part of the 1996 legislation, signed by Mr. Clinton, which made deportation automatic in many cases. The measure never got out of committee, but it had ten Democratic co-sponsors in the Senate. Mrs. Clinton was not among them.
"Mrs. Clinton keeps reminding us about going back to the 90s and talking about how great the 90s were," Mr. Leopold said. "If she's planning to bring back that approach to immigration, that's disturbing as well."
Ms. Munoz called the 1996 law "very ugly..."
The reopening of discussion on Clinton's record vs. rhetoric on immigration has refocused attention on her confused stance(s) during an October 30 candidate debate, when she took, in a matter of minutes, both sides of the dispute over whether undocumented immigrants should have drivers licenses:
New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, a leading Clinton supporter whose proposals came under fire in that discussion, quickly withdrew his proposal after that debate, temporarily removing the subject from wider national media scrutiny.
But the Obama campaign is now launching an offensive to distinguish its candidate's unequivocal position in favor of drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, as well as differences between him and Clinton over whether each will tackle immigration reform in their first year in the White House:The Illinois senator is differentiating himself in three key areas: driver's licenses, a promise to take up immigration reform his first year in office, and his background as the son of an immigrant (his father was Kenyan) and a community organizer in Chicago.
Obama made the promise to Latino leaders to take up immigration reform in his first year after Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., chairman of the Democratic caucus, said his party might not raise the divisive issue again until the next president's second term, assuming a Democrat wins.
Latino leaders felt betrayed. For them, an immigration overhaul is a top priority in light of state and local crackdowns on illegal immigrants and federal raids in workplaces across the country.
Clinton has not made such a promise, saying only that she would make her best efforts.
"Those issues are huge," said Obama supporter and state Sen. Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, vice chairman of the California Latino Legislative Caucus....
John Trasviña, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said:"Clinton and (Sen. John) Edwards have said no driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants... Sen. Obama has said you get a driver's license if you know how to drive. And that message I think will resonate in the Latino community as we get closer to California."
Political consultant James Carville, a Clinton supporter, has sent various memos to Democratic politicians urging them to avoid the issue of drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants, or oppose the concept altogether, citing polls that a majority of Americans do not favor them. Obama has bucked that counsel (and I think this is an example of what Obama meant when he spoke about the leadership qualities of former Republican President Ronald Reagan, who similarly took unpopular positions without backing down, and was popular in part for his lack of fear of what polls say).
The Latino electorate is diverse. In the Mid-Atlantic states, much of the population is of Caribbean descent, particularly Puerto Rican and Dominican. In South Florida, Cuban-Americans are the largest and most politically influential ethnic group (and those voters may surprise the conventional wisdom tomorrow in the non-binding Democratic beauty contest on the ballot there). In the West (and increasingly nationwide) Mexican-Americans are on the rise as a blockbusting political force. For that largest group, immigration reform is the dominant issue (of the thousands of questions that viewers sent to Univision for the Spanish-language station's Democratic presidential debate, 70 percent were about that topic).
Kennedy is widely (and accurately) viewed among Latino voters as the champion of immigrants in Washington, and his endorsement is already provoking a second look at both Obama and Clinton. It has certainly unleashed the Hispanic-American advocacy organizations in Washington to now speak out about Clinton's true record after many months of silence.
What was thought, just two days ago, to be a demographic vote locked up for Clinton may now be in play. And with important national Hispanic-American leaders like Cecilia Muñoz now questioning Clinton's record, and the Kennedy organization highlighting Obama's leadership in the immigration reform battle as, in the words of one Kennedy associate "a politically touchy subject the other presidential candidates avoided," the competition for Latino votes is now very much on again.
This report originally appeared at The Field, where Al Giordano covers the 2008 presidential campaign.
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