Opinion: Immigration tussle shows why Bernie Sanders is leading Hillary Clinton

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton take the stage before a debate in Milwaukee on Thursday.

(Tom Lynn / Associated Press)

Two exchanges at Thursday night’s debate between finger-pointing socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders and endlessly scandal-plagued former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton nicely summed up the difference between the two White House wannabes — while also explaining why Sanders has momentum in the primaries and Clinton’s doesn’t.

The first came in response to a question about the Obama administration’s practice of deporting children (and their mothers) back to Central America’s Northern Triangle after their bids for asylum are rejected. Clinton and Sanders both said they wanted to provide a refuge to those fleeing gang violence in the region. But while Clinton’s solution was to make sure kids seeking asylum had attorneys to help make their case — only a small percentage do, and they win asylum at a dramatically higher rate than the kids who don’t — Sanders flatly pledged to open the border to any child from the region.

One candidate presents a complex, nuanced view of a complex, nuanced world. The other grasps the problem with both hands and shakes it, hard.

That dynamic has repeated itself again and again in the campaign. Clinton will sink into the policy weeds to look for specific things to change in the government’s approach to a problem. Sanders will sink into the emotional core of an issue and vow to stop the madness.


One candidate presents a complex, nuanced view of a complex, nuanced world. The other grasps the problem with both hands and shakes it, hard.

Shortly thereafter, Clinton rapped Sanders for opposing a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007 (S 1348) that would have provided a path to legalization or citizenship for those already in the country illegally. The measure was sponsored by liberal Democrat Ted Kennedy, whom conservatives had been branding a socialist long before Vermont actually elected one.

Sanders explained that the measure was opposed by several groups representing immigrants, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, because it would expand the visa program for migrants seeking to work in the U.S. but not stay here (“guest workers”). The program would have allowed U.S. corporations to treat migrants practically like slaves, he argued.

That’s the same critique offered by some (but not all) U.S. unions, which complain that guest workers take jobs from American citizens — a more nativist angle than a human-rights concern. And in fact, that’s the angle that Sanders took in 2007 when he explained his position to a popular cable news host who favors strict immigration limits. According to BuzzFeed, Sanders “told Lou Dobbs that he didn’t know why ‘we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are right now.’”


But then as now, the failure to compromise spelled doom for the immigration reform effort. Sanders joined Democrats in supporting an amendment that would have ended the guest-working program in five years. That amendment led Republicans to oppose the bill; Sanders then joined them in killing the measure with a filibuster.

Similarly, Sanders has backed away from the bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill he voted for in 2013. “That legislation,” Sanders says on his website, “contained a series of compromises that should now be rejected.”

This all-or-nothing approach simply doesn’t work in Washington, and Sanders acknowledges as much on his site. While he pledges to act unilaterally to prevent the deportation of relatives of citizens and lawful permanent residents, the rest of those in the country illegally will have to wait for the “political revolution” needed to pass legislation giving them a path to citizenship.  Good luck with pulling that off in the majority of state legislatures that Republicans control today and are likely to control for years because they hold the power to draw congressional districts.

But while winning a legislative battle in Washington requires a willingness to compromise, it’s not clear that winning a primary does. Clinton has recently hammered on Sanders for being unrealistic, and she got hammered in New Hampshire, losing almost every county. Her challenge is that she’s trying to sell voters on her mastery of policy while Sanders is feeling their pain and demanding the maximum in relief.

Email Jon Healey

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