Bernie Sanders voted in favor of a bill that allowed indefinite detention for undocumented immigrants alleged to be members of street gangs and refused to go along with immigration reform in 2007.
Hillary Clinton has said she is “adamantly against illegal immigrants” and has pledged to deny driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
In the final Democratic debate last night before the party’s Florida primary on Tuesday, the two candidates endeavored to dredge the darkest skeletons in each other’s records on immigration. In Florida, where nearly 15 percent of Democratic voters are Hispanic and 610,000 more Hispanic voters have no party affiliation, a candidate’s immigration stance can swing the election result. The issue dominated the debate, which was hosted by the Spanish-language Univision network.
So which Democrat has the better immigration record? Neither candidate is spotless, but Clinton’s positions have been more hard-line over the years while Sanders’ record of questionable votes is more nuanced. And there’s no nuance in a U.S. presidential debate.
In 2007, the governor of New York wanted to start issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Driving without a license — something thousands of immigrants do daily to get to work — carries steep risks because getting caught could mean getting deported and separation from their families. The lack of identification also leads to a sense of insecurity and makes policymaking difficult for governments unaware of how many people they need to serve. Clinton, then a U.S. senator in New York, supported the plan, hoping to “get people out of the shadows.”
Then, two months later, she changed her mind. Clinton was running for president, and she was trying to differentiate herself from the other Democratic candidates. “As president, I will not support driver’s licenses for undocumented people,” she said.
Clinton has also said “people have to stop employing illegal immigrants” on a radio program in 2003. That soundbite came back to haunt her in last night’s debate when moderator Maria Elena Salinas brought it up. “So, are you flip-flopping on this issue?” Salinas asked. “Or are you pandering to Latinos, what some would call Hispandering?”
Sanders is not without fault. In 2006, he supported an amendment that was supposed to help a group of vigilante immigrant hunters along the Mexican border. For some reason, Sanders voted for it. But the whole thing — both the vigilantes and the amendment — was a joke, and it probably had no effect whatsoever. He also voted against comprehensive immigration reform in 2007. But he had a good reason for that: The package included guestworker programs he called “akin to slavery.”
Sanders also voted for a bill that would allow indefinite detention for undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation proceedings. The bill was restrictive about who was eligible: namely, anyone suspected of belonging to a “criminal street gang.” Criminal or not, indefinite detention is illegal under international law.
Yet so is sending an asylum seeker back to a country where that person has a fear of being persecuted. And Clinton worked for, and has supported the policies of, an administration responsible for the deportation of 2.5 million people. Among them are women and children afraid of being murdered by Central American gangs. Children entering the country alone are forced to represent themselves in deportation proceedings, and judges are far more likely to deport you if you don’t have a lawyer. The New York Times Magazine has reported at least one instance in which an immigrant asked for asylum and was promptly deported.
“Can you promise that you won’t deport immigrants who don’t have a criminal record?” asked Univision anchor Jorge Ramos.
“Here’s what I can promise Jorge,” Clinton replied. “I can promise that I will do everything possible to provide due process.”
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