When politicians voice support for comprehensive immigration reform, Pablo Alvarado isn’t impressed.
“It means nothing,” Alvarado, director of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, told me this week.
It’s easy to say you support reform as Republicans veer to the far right on immigration in the presidential campaign as well as in Congress. “The more extreme Republicans become, the less the Democrats have to do,” Alvarado said.
The message to front-running Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, and to the Republican who eventually will have to reach out to Latinos once the smear campaign against undocumented immigrants ends after the primary season, is this: You will have to work hard for the Latino vote. In theory, they should have to earn it.
Clinton’s campaign is stepping up its courting of Latino voters ahead of next year’s primaries. For me it brings to mind her history with Latinos: She had a nearly 2-1 edge in the 2008 primaries over then-candidate Barack Obama. Her work to register Latino voters in southern Texas way back in the 1970s is well documented.
When I mentioned this to Alvarado, he wasn’t moved. He responded that he couldn’t point to any specific policy effort by Clinton that would make her a prohibitive favorite among Latinos.
Latinos are becoming savvier, he said. “People are going to ask for policies, not rhetoric,” he said.
Candidates can thank President Obama for that. For all his promises, Obama came up short on immigration reform except for giving temporary legal status to some undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children. His attempt at another executive action to give relief to some parents of U.S.-born children is tied up in court and might not get off the ground.
When it comes to policies, Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley can impress by noting he signed bills as Maryland’s governor to give undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses and in-state college tuition. But he is not a major player in the race. With Vice President Joe Biden undecided, it’s Clinton and Bernie Sanders.
Even if Biden enters the race, Clinton is in a solid position with Latinos. She can recite a Senate record in which she voted for immigration reform in 2007 (Sanders did not, but voted for it in 2013). Additionally, Clinton, like Sanders, supported the Dream Act to give legal residency to some undocumented immigrants who arrived as children. In 2008 she and Sanders helped table a vote on an amendment to restrict federal funds to communities based on compliance with federal immigration law.
Clinton will need to fall back on her record because she at one time opposed driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants, a measure that has been adopted by several states. Last year she said migrant children fleeing violence in Central America should be deported while legal experts said many had valid asylum cases.
Like Alvarado, I think it’s healthy for candidates to prove themselves to voters. No one wants to be taken for granted.
But as Melissa R. Michelson, a professor of political science at Menlo College who focuses on Latino politics, reminded me, the possibility that a Republican will repeal Obama’s executive actions, makes Clinton an even more attractive candidate.
Republicans shouldn’t make Clinton’s campaigning with Latinos so easy.
Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @marlengarcia777