Sanders and Clinton are mostly in sync on immigration. So why are Latino activists so bitterly divided?
Federal agents came for Erika Andiola’s mother in 2013.
A well-known immigrant rights activist in Arizona, Andiola was able to stop her mother’s deportation after mounting a public campaign. But nearly having her mother kicked out of the country by the administration of a Democratic president eroded any allegiance the young activist felt to the Democratic Party.
Today, Andiola is part of a group of Latino advisors to Bernie Sanders who are vocally critical of President Obama and his party’s record on immigration. She and other Sanders supporters frequently mention the record number of deportations carried out under Obama’s watch and at times have called on Latinos not to vote for certain Democrats who they believe have blocked efforts to limit deportations.
Their prominence in Sanders’ campaign underscores how much the race between the Vermont senator and Hillary Clinton has become entangled in another fight – a long-running battle between Obama and his party’s left wing over immigration enforcement.
Clinton has tied herself closely to the president, who enjoys solid approval ratings among Democrats. That has paid important electoral dividends, particularly in solidifying her support among black voters. But just as she has gathered many of Obama’s friends, the former secretary of State has also inherited his opponents.
Sanders and Clinton, who both plan campaign events this weekend highlighting their positions on immigration, have offered largely similar proposals. Both have pledged to go further than Obama in curtailing deportations of immigrants in the country illegally. Both have turned to immigrant activists, some of whom came to the country illegally, to help design their platforms on the issue.
But their supporters have engaged in fierce battles that often seem to have less to do with the candidates themselves than with the existing administration.
The impact can be seen among Latino voters, many of whom view immigration as a top issue. A new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll of California voters found a generational divide in the Latino vote, with Sanders beating Clinton 58% to 31% among Latino voters younger than 50 in advance of the state’s primary on Tuesday. Among older Latinos, Clinton led 69% to 16%.
The president has spoken frequently about the need for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would allow most of the 11 million people in the country without permission to stay. Yet he chose not to push such legislation during his first term in office, not even during his first two years, when Democrats were in control of both chambers of Congress.
In his second term, a comprehensive bill passed the Senate with a bipartisan coalition, but then died in the Republican-controlled House.
While Obama has given work permits and deportation deferrals to some immigrants with longstanding ties to the U.S., he has also overseen the deportation of more than 2.5 million people in the country illegally.
Some Latino activists see that as a betrayal.
“If we’re talking about parties being hard on Latinos, let’s talk about the Democrats, not just the Republicans,” Andiola, a Sanders spokeswoman, said at a heated forum on immigration at UCLA this week.
Andiola, who was brought to the U.S. from Mexico illegally at age 11, and who won a temporary work permit under Obama’s deportation deferral program, blamed Democrats for looking the other way while Obama presided over a record number of deportations.
“We have Democrats that keep covering him up,” Andiola said, adding that she views Clinton as part of that Democratic establishment.
Dolores Huerta, the veteran labor and immigrant rights leader and a Clinton supporter, fought back. She defended the Democratic Party as being “at the forefront of supporting the rights of Latino citizens and immigrants.”
U.S. Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Los Angeles), the highest-ranking Latino in the House Democratic leadership and also a Clinton backer, said in an interview that intense criticism by some Sanders backers overlooked the fact that Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to pass legislation that allows immigrants in the country illegally to stay.
“Don’t compare me to the Almighty,” said Becerra. “Compare me to the alternative.”
That’s the case Democratic leaders have been making for years in their effort to portray their party as the only one friendly to Latinos, who represent a growing slice of the electorate.
The rise of Donald Trump as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee appears to have helped that effort. Polls show that Latino voters overwhelming identify as Democrats and oppose Trump’s comments disparaging Mexicans and calling for mass deportations.
But some of Sanders’ top advisors have been outspoken against the argument that Latinos should back Democrats because Republicans would be worse.
Arturo Carmona, national deputy political director for Sanders, once wrote that “Latino political power must begin and end with the independence of the Latino vote.”
In a Time magazine op-ed in 2014, when he was director of Presente.org, an online network of Latinos, Carmona described Latino affiliation with the Democratic Party as “an abusive relationship.” He asked Latinos not to vote for four Democratic members of Congress who he believed had urged Obama not to expand his deportation deferral program until after the 2014 midterm elections.
Chris Newman, an attorney who has has advised the Sanders campaign on immigration policy, said he believed that “some within the Democratic Party have been intentionally duplicitous on immigration precisely to make it an election issue as opposed to a policy accomplishment.”
“There has never been a political incentive for the Democrats to win on immigration reform as long as they can continue to blame Republicans for inaction,” he said.
Those arguments fit well with the anti-establishment ethos of the Sanders campaign. But such comments draw objections from Clinton’s backers.
“I don’t believe it’s fair,” said Jose Parra, a political consultant who specializes in the Latino vote. Andiola and another member of the Sanders campaign staff, Cesar Vargas, wouldn’t be eligible to work if it hadn’t been for Obama’s deportation deferral program, Parra said.
“Many of the people who are backing Sanders right now benefited from that, and it wouldn’t have happened except for a Democratic president and other leaders,” he said.
Parra also questioned Sanders’ record on immigration, including the Vermont senator’s opposition to a 2007 immigration reform bill – legislation that Clinton supported. At the time, Sanders warned that among other problems, the bill would drive down wages for low-income workers, an argument put forth by labor unions at the time.
Clinton’s record on immigration has also been critiqued by supporters of Sanders. They have objected to her opposition during her last presidential campaign to a bill in her home state, New York, that would have given driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
Despite mixed records on the issue, Sanders and Clinton have both staked out stances on immigration in the primary that are well to the left of anything the Obama administration has advocated.
“They’re actually competing to see who has the most progressive immigration policy and more refined policy platform. And that is a beautiful thing,” said Angelica Salas, who leads the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Los Angeles.
Sanders has called for a special protection known as Temporary Protected Status to be given to all immigrants entering the country illegally from violence-ridden Central America. He has called for an end to privately run immigrant detention centers.
Clinton also has advocated ending privately run detention centers. When the Obama administration announced a new round of raids aimed at deporting young Central Americans whose petitions for asylum have been denied, both candidates spoke out against the plan.
Their similarities on the issue have led many to call for party unity, especially given the fierce general election that looms ahead.
Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda, director of the North American Integration and Development Center and an associate professor at UCLA, asked panelists at this week’s immigration conference to focus on what the candidates have in common on immigration, rather than their differences.
“Even though it seems to be a hard-fought battle,” he said, “Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders aren’t that far apart.”
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For more on Campaign 2016 and immigration, follow @KateLinthicum
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