John Locher/AP

Hillary Clinton Just Told Immigration Activists What They Wanted to Hear

Immigration groups want Clinton to preserve her predecessor's executive actions if she's elected president. On Tuesday, she said she'd go further.

The immigrant community has been at the center of so many campaign stump speeches. And in recent years, after the election balloons have deflated, the same Latino voters who turned up to vote are left standing without the comprehensive immigration reform package they were promised.

It happened with President Obama, who campaigned on making substantial progress on immigration reform in his first year, only to earn the nickname of "deporter-in-chief" a few years later. And, even once the Senate did push forward on immigration reform in Obama's second term, the bill sat idle in the House of Representatives.

That's why when Hillary Clinton staked out her positions on immigration reform Tuesday night in Las Vegas, Latino groups were watching closely with anticipation to see if she was willing to go as far as they want her to.

What activists really wanted to know ahead of the speech was whether Clinton was prepared to pick up where Obama left off on executive actions. She gave them an answer.

"I will fight for comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship for you and for your families across our country," she said Tuesday. "I will fight to stop partisan attacks on the executive actions that would put Dreamers, including those with us today, at risk of deportation. And if Congress continues to refuse to act, as president I would do everything possible under the law to go even further."

Clinton also took a jab at her Republican challengers like Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush who have flirted with the idea of giving immigrants a pathway to citizenship, but since clarified their positions.

"We can't wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship. Now this is where I differ with everybody on the Republican side." Clinton said. "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."

Rubio supported citizenship as part of his ultimately unsuccessful comprehensive immigration bill in 2013, but has since backed away from that plan. Bush once said that he could support citizenship in an interview with Charlie Rose, but his spokesperson told Buzzfeed that Bush's "preferred proposed plan" now is to give immigrants "earned legal status."

Clinton also went on to promise that she would "expand" the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program as well as Deferred Action for Parental Accountability even as she acknowledged that comprehensive immigration reform would provide the real solution.

"I would like to do more for the parents of DREAMers who are not necessarily included," Clinton said.

If she does have an opportunity to hammer out a comprehensive immigration bill, Clinton said that she would make family reunification a key component of it.

"In the absence of actually, finally passing comprehensive immigration reform, a lot of families have been broken up and that's just really so painful for people who live through it," Clinton said."That's why I want to do everything we can to defend the president's executive orders. Because I think they were certainly within his authority, constitutionally, legally, they were based on precedent that I certainly believe is adequate. And then still try to go further and deal with some of these other issues, like the reunification of families that were here and have been split up since the last eight, ten, twelve years."

During her tenure in the Senate in 2007, Clinton tried to advance comprehensive immigration and the rights of DREAMers through legislation, but the measures fell short. Recognizing that the political obstacles still remain in many ways, Latino activists wanted assurances that Clinton wouldn't just back a pathway to citizenship, she would advance her own executive actions on immigration if she could not get a comprehensive bill through Congress.

In today's splintered political environment where Republicans control the Congress and Democrats control the White House, many Latino activists want assurances that Clinton won't just back a pathway to citizenship. They want to know that she will advance her own executive actions on immigration if she cannot get a comprehensive bill through Congress.

"People are not stupid. In our movement we understand that if Republicans stay in power in the House and if, like in the last Congress, they continue to lurch to the right, a promise of bipartisan immigration reform sounds a little hollow," says Frank Sharry, the founder and executive director of America's Voice, an advocacy group that works to promote immigration reform.

While Obama has taken executive action to allow DREAMers and even their parents to stay in the country, activists say there is still a dearth of trust left between the White House and the Latino community. Many are still frustrated that the president held off on his latest executive action to shield millions from deportation until after the November election. Julieta Garibay, the deputy advocacy director for United We Dream, said before Clinton spoke, that Clinton has to mend some of those fences if she wanted to truly mobilize the Latino community.

"There is a lot of concern that it is lip service that has happened before. Obama promised immigration reform, and he ended up being the 'deporter-in-chief,'" Garibay says. "They promise you everything, but what kind of president will they be? How are they going to work with [the Department of Homeland Security]?"

Garibay said many Latino activists desperately wanted Clinton to promise that she'll build on Obama's executive action if necessary to keep immigrants in the country from being indiscriminately deported.

"We want to hear her say, 'I will support it, I will protect it, I will expand it," Garibay says.

After Obama announced his immigration plan in November, Clinton released a statement saying that while only Congress could "finish the job," she supported "the president's decision to begin fixing our broken immigration system and focus finite resources on deporting felons rather than families."

On Tuesday night, Clinton certainly did that. She even promised to improve conditions for immigrants in detention centers—a key complaint that has been lodged repeatedly against the Obama administration.

"I think we need to look at how we make our entire system more humane," Clinton said. "I want to protect people. I want more humane treatment no matter how the law is written or enforced."

Exactly when, however, Clinton will get to immigration reform if she is elected president was a little less clear. She hedged the timeline and was careful not to make a sweeping promise like Obama did when he said he would make progress on legislation in his first year.

"I can't–sitting here today–predict what will be happening. That happened to President Obama when he was elected and found out we were falling into an economic abyss," Clinton said. "Among the priorities I would be advocating for in the beginning would be comprehensive immigration reform."