WASHINGTON, DC -- The focus on GOP presidential candidates’ immigration platforms has eclipsed its prominence as a measuring stick for Democratic candidates in the primaries.
Even though it’s an important issue for the party as they seek to attract Latino voters, Democrats' platforms on immigration have been overshadowed by the attention paid to some of the rhetoric on the GOP side that has been protested by a number of Latinos, including Republican Hispanics.
But just as the GOP has a conservative base to curry favor with to win the primary, Democrats have to grab Latino voters’ energy in the primary and sustain it in the general.
“When you get to general election, you also need to generate enthusiasm,” said Adrian Pantoja, professor of political studies/Chicano studies at Pitzer College in Claremont, California.
“You want Latinos to vote for you not simply because they don’t want to vote for the other guy or the other guy is shooting himself in the foot because of immigration. You want them to have a level of enthusiasm, hope … over what the candidate is going to accomplish.”
Generally, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley agree that there should be immigration reform and it should include a path to citizenship for people in the country illegally. They support Obama’s executive action and none are making the reforms contingent on achieving border security first.
But there are differences, ranging from their past records and their evolution on the issue to immigrant access to Obamacare and paying for college.
Among Democratic candidates, the differences surrounding immigration are "how specific they've been about policy details," according to immigration advocate Lynn Tramonte.
“It’s obvious the Democratic field is light years ahead of Republicans on immigration … they all have very good positions and they are strong,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director at America’s Voice, an immigrant advocacy group.
“The area of difference is how specific they’ve been about policy details,” Tramonte said. “O’Malley comes out ahead because he’s got such a detailed plan. When he says he wants to extend executive action to as many people as possible, that’s music to our ears."
Bernie Sanders, a senator from Vermont, has said the executive action that has shielded many young immigrants from deportation should be expanded to parents of Dreamers. “To me that’s very limiting,” Tramonte said.
Sanders was releasing more details on his immigration plan this week.
“As far as we know now, Clinton has said she wants to expand, but has not been specific how. She said she wants to go beyond the Dreamers. We are waiting to hear details,” Tramonte said.
Over the weekend, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley said he is the best candidate on immigration reform and threw some punches at Clinton and Sanders over their records on immigration, according to reports on an immigration forum sponsored by Fair Immigration Reform Movement.
Sanders was scheduled to speak at the forum Monday. Clinton was not participating.
“We are not going to solve this problem with poll-tested triangulation and half-truths, nor will we solve this problem by falsely asserting that immigrants take our jobs or lower our wages,” O’Malley said in an immigration forum held in Las Vegas, according to the Washington Post.
“To solve this problem we need new leadership, principled leadership based on what is best for our country and our economy," he said.
O’Malley has been unable to break out of single-digit polling and lags far behind Clinton in name recognition among Latinos. However, the three candidates are scheduled to face off in their second debate Saturday night in Des Moines, Iowa.
Sanders has had to contend with a 2007 vote that helped Republicans kill a comprehensive immigration reform bill that year. Sanders opposed the bill’s guest worker provisions that were also opposed by unions.
In 2013, after tweaking a guest worker provision in that year’s immigration bill, he voted for it and it passed in the Senate.
Sanders had a slow start in building a campaign infrastructure targeted at Latinos. Arturo Carmona, a former immigration activist Sanders recently hired, said Sanders recognizes the importance of immigration, but also has established some “key pillars” around humane polices and good wages.
Sanders’ 2007 vote was consistent with those pillars, Carmona said.
Latinos need a candidate with a strong platform on other issues, such as fixing government corruption and removing the influence of PACs and Super PACs. They need a candidate they can trust who consistently provides integrity and leadership, Carmona said.
“For Latinos, it is about the whole package, not just leadership,” he said.
The first Democratic debate devoted less time to immigration than was dedicated in the first GOP debate.
But in the time given, the debate highlighted some differences, such as providing health care to immigrants. O’Malley has said people here illegally should be eligible for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act and for the subsidies that help lower income people pay the cost.
“Do you think for a second that simply because somebody’s standing in a broken que on naturalization they’re not going to go to the hospital, and that care isn’t going to fall on our insurance rates?” O’Malley said in the Oct. 13 debate.
Sanders also supports allowing immigrants who arrived or stayed here illegally to get health care under Obamacare but would not extend them subsidies.
Clinton has said she supports states expanding health care, including to those not legally here. She also said immigrants should be able to buy into the health care exchanges, but said to go beyond that, to what O’Malley has suggested, “it raises so many issues. It would be very difficult to administer,” Clinton said.
She said it needs to be part of comprehensive reform “when we finally get to do it.”
O'Malley's proposal is the one that would likely have the most impact on Latinos and immigrants, said Angel Padilla, health policy analyst for the National Immigration Law Center's Immigrant Justice Fund.
"The question voters need to ask themselves is, how serious are the candidates in integrating immigrants? Immigrants will get sick, just like everyone else. If they get sick, they can't work. If they can't work, they can't provide for their families. If they can't provide for their families, they can't pay taxes," Padilla said.
He added that those who suggest that this and other issues would get resolved in immigration reform, should consider that the 2013 Senate passed immigration bill had a more than decade-long path to legal status for immigrants, which meant they would go without health care that long.
"I don't think a lot of people understand even DACA recipients don't have access to health (insurance)," Padilla said. "I think people don't understand that people can't even buy it with their own money."
On another issue, at least 18 states allow immigrants here without legal permission to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Another two states allow the immigrant students to pay in-state tuition if they get approval from the Board of Regents, the NCSL said. In Virginia, it is granted to students with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.
Three states prohibit students without legal status from receiving in-state tuition and Alabama and South Carolina prohibit them from enrolling at any public postsecondary institution, according to NCSL.
Clinton said in the first Democratic debate that she would support states that choose to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.
O’Malley signed a law while serving as Maryland governor that allowed young immigrants illegally in the U.S. to pay in-state college tuition. Sanders also supports in-state college tuition for young immigrants, not legally here.
Polls have shown Clinton to be the heavy favorite among Latinos in the race and since the Benghazi hearings and the Democratic debate, Clinton has regained overall support that seemed to be slipping.
“In 2008, Latino voters were often referred to as Hillary’s firewall … So what Hillary has is a strong record, a connection, name recognition that is not going to be overcome,” said Pantoja, who is also a senior analyst with Latino Decisions. The polling firm was hired by the Clinton campaign, but Pantoja does not work for the campaign.
Clinton’s record on immigration is what has given her the most trouble and where she runs into skepticism with some immigration advocates and voters.
In 2007, she voted for the amendment sunsetting guest worker programs that was included in the comprehensive immigration bill of that year. But her 2016 immigration platform has won over some previous critics.
She also voted in favor of a border wall or fence that year and previously opposed driver’s licenses for immigrants without legal status. But Clinton has given that idea her full support in this campaign.
"She has also called for comprehensive immigration reform with nothing less than a full path to citizenship instead of "second-class" status, as Republicans have proposed," said Lorella Praeli, who as an immigration activist publicly challenged Clinton on immigration.
"HIllary Clinton will fight to defend President Obama's executive actions, and do everything possible under the law to go even further to keep families together, including working to create an accessible pathway for hard working individuals such as the parents of DREAMers," Praeli said in a statement provided by Clinton's campaign.
Sergio Garcia-Rios, an assistant professor of government and Latino Studies at Cornell University, said Latinos tend to associate Obama’s deportation deferral programs such as DACA with Clinton too. That will be key in mobilizing the Latino vote, he said.
Research by Latino Decisions shows that Latinos are more willing and excited about voting if Hillary Clinton is mentioned in association with DACA and another program known as DAPA, Garcia-Rios said. Those surveyed saw the programs as likely to continue under Clinton.
Garcia-Rios collaborates with Latino Decisions, but his work also is not part of the work done by the polling firm for Clinton’s campaign, he said.
“Clinton is able to mobilize the Latino vote,” Garcia-Rios said. “(Sanders) might change that, but one of the things about Clinton is she’s able to connect with Obama’s presidency.”