Hillary Clinton’s new immigration stance is making reformers very, very happy

Hillary Clinton will grab the issue of immigration by the horns — and she’s daring any Republican challengers to do the same.

The former secretary of state was expected to back a pathway to citizenship for the country’s estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants while speaking at a roundtable in Las Vegas on Tuesday afternoon.

She did that. But she also laid out a progressive stance on immigration that could contrast her with a Republican field of candidates who have focused more on securing the border and enforcing the rule of law.

In particular, Clinton emphasized that she wanted undocumented immigrants to achieve citizenship — not some sort of “legal status,” which Republican presidential candidates such as Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) have endorsed.

“This is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side,” she told the panel, students at Rancho High School in North Las Vegas, where the event was hosted. “Make no mistakes. Today not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one.”

“When they talk about legal status, that is code for ‘second-class status,'” she said.

The panel itself was a bold statement. Clinton surrounded herself with six young people who had entered the country illegally or overstayed a tourist visa — in other words, some of the same people who would be impacted by the passage of a comprehensive immigration reform bill.

Hillary Clinton Holds Campaign Roundtable In Las Vegas

Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

“Unlike the other candidates, she is really engaging in a substantive debate about immigration reform,” said Cristina Jiménez, the managing director of United We Dream, a non-profit organization led by undocumented youth. “She went right at it.”

Clinton backs the deportation relief program President Obama extended to an estimated 5 million people in November. Beyond that, she said on Tuesday, she supports creating a vehicle that would offer the same relief to parents of young people enrolled in the initiative.

Those parents should be able “to make their case and to be eligible for the same deferred action as their children,” she said.

One of her more progressive positions came on legal representation for people in the federal immigration system. Clinton said she would like “everyone to have it” — right now, people in immigration court are not guaranteed the right to a lawyer — but indicated some groups take precedence.

“If we have to try to prioritize, I would like young people, I would like people from vulnerable populations who would otherwise not have the support that they need,” she said.

Clinton also articulated her position on immigration detention, taking a shot at private prisons, which she said have “a built-in incentive” to lock up immigrants. Her stance is a subtle attack on a potential rival; in the past, political action committees supporting Rubio have received campaign donations from GEO Group, one the largest of private-prison companies.

“I think we could do a better job if we kept detention to people who have a record of violence [or] illegal behavior and that we have a different approach to people who are not in that category,” she said. “And I don’t think we should put children and vulnerable people into big detention facilities, because I think they’re at risk. I think that their physical and mental health are at risk.”

Prior to the speech, some immigrant-rights activists worried that Clinton would fall short of their expectations. Frank Sharry, the executive director of America’s Voice, for instance, said earlier in the day that Clinton supporting a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants was “not that big a deal.”

Sharry reversed his position on Tuesday night, saying in a statement that Clinton “threw down” and “took a series of positions that will make Republican heads explode and Republican candidates shudder.”