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Analysis: Hillary, GOP Change the Immigration Debate

People show their support during a rally for comprehensive immigration reform on the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington DC, USA, 10 April 2013. Several thousand people attended the rally.
People show their support during a rally for comprehensive immigration reform on the West Front of the US Capitol in Washington DC, USA, 10 April 2013. Several thousand people attended the rally. MICHAEL REYNOLDS / EPA

Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is sharpening the focus of the debate over immigration. As divisive a public figure as one can imagine in the eyes of the GOP, the inevitability of her name at the top of the Democratic ticket has forced Republicans, at least for now, to set aside petty squabbles over immigration that usually look like a race to the bottom.

Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush are the two Republicans with a demonstrated history of approaching immigration reform humanely - though with variation depending on their audience - and the result so far is that they are doing the best in the polls among their fellow Republicans.

A recent poll by NBC/WSJ puts Mr. Rubio and Mr. Bush at the top of the pecking order as the first two choices to win the primary contests early next year.

Mr. Rubio’s failed attempt at immigration reform will continue to reap benefits for him at the expense of his party’s image. A member of the Senate “Gang of Eight” which introduced a comprehensive bipartisan reform bill , Rubio had stepped into the alligator pit of immigration politics where most had chosen to use immigrants as a punching bag, and he still has the scars to prove it.

Mr. Bush spoke to a group of evangelical Hispanics in Houston last week and waxed patriotic about the role immigrants have played in our country’s history. Interestingly enough, Mr. Bush chose his words wisely by saying that undocumented members of society should be given a pathway to legalization.

And at a Las Vegas high school, Hillary Clinton made her clearest statement yet about immigration by vowing to expand President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to include their parents, as well.

Ms. Clinton pledged, "So I will fight for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship for you and for your families across our country."

And if Congress failed to act on immigration reform, she continued, she would “go even further” than President Obama’s current executive action.

However, if you weren’t paying close attention to Mr. Bush and Ms. Clinton, in the fog of the old debate over executive action was an emerging issue that may come to be the biggest distinction between Ms. Clinton and the emerging moderates of the GOP.

While Mr. Bush and Mr. Rubio are moving towards a policy of “legal status” for the undocumented, it’s not entirely clear what that means. It could mean some current status formalized by Congress, such as DACA. Or it could mean some current immigration status, as we may commonly know as a permanent resident or “green card holder”, expanded to include the current undocumented population.

What the GOP plans seems clear not to include, however, is citizenship. In the byzantine world of our immigration system, there are many levels of residency an immigrant may have. But the gold standard of American integration is citizenship. Not only does citizenship open one up to access to social benefits, but perhaps most important to Democrats, it permits one to vote in elections.

Sensing the GOP leaders creeping left, Ms. Clinton threw down the gauntlet on what immigration advocates should focus on over the next year and a half, citizenship.

And she is wise to do so. Despite her support just a year ago to deport children seeking asylum from Central America, polling has shown a direct relationship between her stance on humane immigration reform and her support within the Latino community.

A November poll in 2014 by Latino Decisions showed that her support for executive actions granting status to undocumented immigrants would reap 85% support among Latino voters. Most interesting, if Ms. Clinton failed to executive actions, her support among Latino voters plummets to 37%.

With so much already written since 2012 about the changing demographics of the country and its vital importance for electoral victory in Presidential elections, Republicans seem to care more about beating Hillary than they do about immigrants who were never going to leave anyways.

That practical assessment by Republicans may still change, but the traditional race to the bottom by the GOP, which causes so much damage during the general election, has clearly not yet begun. If beating Hillary can remain the focus of the primary elections, the important task of resisting the urge to appeal to the most anti-immigrant sentiments of the party may be easier as we head into Iowa and New Hampshire. And of course, it's Ms. Clinton's job to make sure that doesn't happen.