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From 'illegal' to 'abolish ICE': Gillibrand grapples with past conservative immigration views

A decade ago, the New York politician's stance on the issue sounded more akin to President Donald Trump than the modern Democratic party.
Image: Kirsten Gillibrand
Kirsten Gillibrand arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. on Oct. 5, 2018.Aaron P. Bernstein / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

After announcing a White House bid amid a historic government shutdown over President Donald Trump's demands for a border wall, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., spent her first week on the 2020 stump explaining and expressing regret over her own hard-line immigration views a decade ago.

“I did not think about suffering in other people’s lives,” she said last Sunday in an interview on CNN. “I realized that things I had said were wrong. I was not caring about others.”

In an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow days earlier, she said her past views were not “driven from my heart. I was callous to the suffering of families that want to be together.”

It's perhaps an unavoidable reckoning for a seasoned politician in a party that's moved rapidly to the left during the last decade. But as electability emerges as a central issue on the campaign trail, Democrats are increasingly willing to say they were wrong.

Gillibrand isn't the only one reconciling past views. Ahead of a potential bid, former Vice President Joe Biden said that his past criminal justice stances haven't always "been right." Not long after announcing that she was exploring her own 2020 campaign, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, apologized for her past views on LGBT rights.

And it's no surprise Gillibrand’s once-conservative stance on immigration is raising eyebrows a decade later: They sound nothing like her current views, like her recent call to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

As a 2006 House candidate running in a deep-red district in upstate New York, Gillibrand's campaign website called for additional border security funding to staff more personnel “to catch illegal immigrants, human traffickers, and drug smugglers” and supported additional funding to hire more immigration judges and expand detention capabilities. An archived copy of the website is still available online, asfirst reported by CNN.

“This is not solely an immigration question; improving our border security is imperative in keeping America safe,” she wrote on her campaign page.

Once elected, Gillibrand opposed New York state's effort to give undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses, while supporting legislation to hire more Border Patrol and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agents and make it easier to deport undocumented immigrants. Her work earned her a B-rating by the far-right anti-immigration group, NumbersUSA, and she campaigned on these conservative immigration views in her 2008 reelection bid.

After being appointed to Hillary Clinton’s Senate seat in 2009, however, Gillibrand underwent a dramatic transformation.

Besieged by critics — New York City’s Spanish-language newspaper El Diario called her appointment a “slap” to immigrant New Yorkers — Gillibrand started meeting with advocates and other representatives, vowing to rethink positions and listen to others. Immigration advocates slowly called off the dogs, cancelling a planned press conference opposing her appointment in early January 2009 as Gillibrand moved to the left.

She began sponsoring legislation to boost immigrants — one invested in English-language education for immigrants, another kept spouses and orphans of deceased U.S. citizens from losing their chance at citizenship, and she co-sponsored "DREAM" legislation in 2009 that would have given young undocumented immigrants a chance at citizenship if they joined the military or went to college. The measure failed in the Senate.

By 2019, she has reversed much of her early stances on immigration. She's called for ICE to be abolished and rethought, expressed support for giving undocumented immigrants driver's licenses, and called the shutdown a crisis of Trump's own making.

Her evolution has earned praise from immigration advocates and lawmakers who had once been her critics.

"While I am not endorsing a candidate at this time, I consider Kirsten a friend and, almost a decade ago, I witnessed firsthand the meaningful evolution of her thinking on immigration," Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., told NBC News in a statement. "Very shortly after becoming Senator, she reached out to me directly and we had multiple conversations where she listened, learned and demonstrated genuine compassion for what families across New York have experienced from our broken immigration system. Since then, she's been a fighter and a tireless ally on these issues who I deeply value."

In Iowa, voters asked the senator to address her liabilities, expressing concern at how they could damage Democrats' chance of retaking the White House.

“People who think, people who read, and people who exercise their logic will evolve on issues. Trump doesn’t because he doesn’t think and he doesn’t read [and] he doesn’t allow himself to be educated,” Linda Smoley, 71, told NBC News after hearing Gillibrand speak in Iowa last weekend.

“I think it’s OK to evolve," she added. "Didn’t even Obama evolve on gay marriage?”