Hillary Rodham Clinton staked an early claim for Latino support Tuesday by calling for a pathway to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in the country illegally, elevating the debate on an issue likely to play a vital role in the 2016 presidential race.
Appearing with several young people who benefited from an easing of deportations under President Obama, the Democratic presidential front-runner said she would extend that policy to include their parents, and also seek a "more humane, more targeted and more effective" approach to enforcing the country's immigration laws.
Clinton's comments at a predominantly Latino high school drew a purposely sharp line between her stance and the large field of Republican candidates — not one of whom supports eventual citizenship for people lacking proper legal documentation.
It also highlighted a split among Republicans, between hard-liners who favor an enforcement-driven approach to illegal immigration and others who support a more comprehensive overhaul that, in some fashion, would allow millions of people now in the country without proper documentation to avoid deportation.
If Congress failed to go along, Clinton said, she would do "everything possible under the law" to act unilaterally — emulating moves by Obama that outraged Republicans.
Obama acted on immigration "in the face of inaction that was not on the merits but politically motivated for partisan reasons, which is not the way we should be solving our problems in our country," Clinton said.
Immigration is not necessarily the topmost issue for Latino voters; repeated surveys have found that education, jobs and other economic issues are typically cited as greater concerns. But immigration is extremely important for how it shapes political perceptions, among Latinos as well as Asian Americans.
The two are the fastest-growing voter groups in the country and have been key to Democratic success in states including California, Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico — all former Republican presidential strongholds that Obama carried twice in his presidential campaigns.
"It's a threshold issue in the sense that it's the lens through which the candidates are seen," said Michael Saragosa, a Republican strategist in Sacramento who works on Latino outreach. "It doesn't matter if you're good on education, job creation, public safety. [Voters] will turn a deaf ear on you unless they believe you're pro-ethnic group."
Mindful of the party's image problem, some prominent Republicans have called for a new, more broad-reaching approach to the illegal immigration issue.
The difficulty for candidates seeking the Republican nomination is that many of the party's most vocal and reliable supporters favor a no-tolerance policy, focused entirely on law enforcement, and view any concession to those living in the country illegally as unacceptable "amnesty." Finding a middle ground has proved elusive for Republican hopefuls.
Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has called for a pathway to legal status — though not citizenship — for some of the millions in the country illegally, a position that holds out hope for winning greater support among Latinos and Asian Americas but alienates many conservative Republicans.
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio has backed off support for a 2013 bill he co-sponsored, which included a path to citizenship, in favor of a "nonpermanent work visa" for people who have been in the country illegally for 10 years or more. First, he said, the country needs to "secure not just the border but our employment-verification system."
A spokesman for Rubio said the senator continued to support citizenship as the eventual status for those now in the country illegally, if they pay back taxes and fines and have no criminal record.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, another top-tier candidate, has also shifted his position. Walker said in March that he used to support so-called amnesty but now wants people in the country illegally to return to their home countries and apply there if they wish to become U.S. citizens.
In an interview last month with conservative commentator Glenn Beck, he went even further, suggesting the U.S. should consider limiting legal immigration "based … first and foremost on protecting American workers and American wages."
Bush, in turn, criticized Walker's position, saying it was the wrong approach to immigration and amounted to playing a "zero-sum game."
Clinton does not face the same sort of political difficulty, as Democrats are mostly unified in their support for a combination of immigration measures that would toughen border security while finding a way to allow permanent residency for the millions in the U.S. illegally. Although many details remain to be filled in, the broad policies she outlined Tuesday were largely consistent with the positions she took in 2008, the last time she ran for president.
"We can't wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship," Clinton said. "Today, not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship.... When they talk about 'legal status,' that is code for second-class status."
The site of Tuesday's remarks, Las Vegas' Rancho High School, had particular resonance as the place where Obama announced an executive action in November aimed at shielding up to 5 million people from deportation.
The policy sought to allow millions of immigrants to apply for three-year permits to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation even though they came to the country illegally. The largest program was aimed at adults who have lived in the U.S. since 2010 and have children who are citizens or legal residents.
A federal judge in Texas has issued a preliminary injunction preventing the program from taking effect, saying Obama overstepped his constitutional authority. The administration has appealed the decision.
Obama's action was a follow-up to his 2012 action that provided a temporary haven for hundreds of thousands of young people — "Dreamers," in the political parlance — who came to the country illegally before age 16.
Their parents were excluded from Obama's more recent action because administration attorneys said they could not legally justify the move. Clinton suggested she would find a way, without saying how.
In contrast to Obama's Rancho High appearance, which was a pep-rally-like event before nearly 1,600 students and supporters in the school gymnasium, Clinton sat at a small table in the school library with half a dozen Dreamers who recounted their personal stories. About 50 invited guests and a like number of reporters looked on.
Following her Nevada stop, Clinton plans two days of fundraising in California, including a Beverly Hills event hosted Thursday night by Haim Saban, the entertainment mogul and longtime Clinton family supporter.