The Big Issue Dividing Clinton and Sanders Supporters Ahead Of The Nevada Caucus

CREDIT: AP Photo/Morry Gash

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, left, and Hillary Rodham Clinton take the stage before a Democratic presidential primary debate at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Milwaukee.

With Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a dead heat ahead of Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada, the two Democratic rivals and their supporters are sharpening their attacks on each other’s immigration records.

On a call with reporters this week, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) savaged Sanders’ voting record in Congress, hitting him for supporting a 2006 amendment to protect anti-immigrant border vigilantes, and for declining to support a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007.

“The question Latinos have to ask themselves is, where was Senator Sanders when we needed him the most?” Gutierrez said. “Instead of standing up to those who were demonizing us, he stood with the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party.”

Julian Castro, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, agreed, saying, “I’m convinced that if the past is any indication of what the future holds, Sanders will continue to let us down.”

Perhaps the harshest attack came from longtime labor leader Dolores Huerta, who said Sanders is a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to immigrant rights.

“Bernie, where have you been?” she said. “We have a saying in Spanish that translates to, ‘You didn’t come see the cactus until it had fruit.’ We use that for politicians who only come to the Latino community when they need our votes. Bernie didn’t need them when he just represented Vermont, but now that he’s running for president and needs our support, he’s reaching out.”

Labor leader Dolores Huerta organizes Latino voters in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Labor leader Dolores Huerta organizes Latino voters in Las Vegas, Nevada.

CREDIT: Alice Ollstein

Ahead of the tight contest in Nevada, where 17 percent of Democratic caucus-goers are Latino, both Sanders and Clinton are amassing endorsements from Latino celebrities, musicians, activists, and government officials. Both have released Spanish language ads and poured money into outreach to Latino communities. Both have DREAMers — undocumented young adults who were brought to the U.S. as children and who have temporary work permits through President Obama’s DACA program — working for their campaigns.

Erika Andiola, a DREAMer who works for the Sanders campaign, told ThinkProgress that Clinton has plenty in her own immigration record to raise concerns.

“Here’s the bottom line and the reason I started working for Bernie,” she said. “I cannot go for a candidate who at some point was taking money from private detention centers. I worked for a congresswoman, so I understand the influence these corporations have on politicians. Knowing Hillary was willing to take money from the companies profiting from my community’s suffering was not something I could tolerate.”

In October, Clinton announced she would no longer accept donations from federally registered lobbyists or PACs for private prison companies, and promised to donate the large amount she had already received from these sources to charity. Clinton, who also had several campaign bundlers who worked in the private prison industry, severed these ties following months of pressure from immigration activists.

Andiola also drew attention to Clinton’s support for deporting Central American asylum seekers, including children. In last week’s debate, Clinton defended President Obama’s decision to deport many of the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children who fled Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico in 2014. “Those children needed to be processed appropriately, but we also had to send a message to families and communities in Central America not to send their children on this dangerous journey in the hands of smugglers,” she said.

Andiola, who herself came from Mexico as a young child, took issue with Clinton’s reasoning.

“I used to work with children in the Guatemalan consulate as part of my job,” she said. “I saw that they were willing to risk anything to get to the U.S., even rape, because they’re running from such poverty and violence. So they don’t need a message, they need us to protect them and welcome them. They need [Temporary Protected Status], which only Bernie has called for.”

An investigation in Honduras, which has one of the highest homicide rates in the world, found that some children the Obama Administration deported have already been killed. Dozens more migrants deported to other Central American countries have also been murdered.

When reporters on Tuesday’s conference call pressed Secretary Castro on whether Clinton’s support for these deportations conflicts with her pro-immigrant rhetoric, he hedged, saying, “She wants to ensure we have a safe, humane process for those who make it to the border. And as president, I think she would have the highest likelihood of actually getting good immigration reform done.”

Dolores Huerta also declined to answer the question, pivoting back to criticizing Sanders’ 2007 vote against a comprehensive immigration reform bill sponsored by Ted Kennedy and John McCain.

“When he came out against that bill, it was devastating,” she said. “He really set us back a decade or more by not supporting the bill when we actually had a bipartisan coalition.”

Sanders has defended his vote against the bill by pointing to its provisions expanding controversial guestworker programs that pay below minimum wage and include few protections against abuse. Disney and other major companies have also been known to lay off their U.S. employees and replace them with temporary foreign workers to cut their costs.

Andiola says she stands by Sanders’ “tough vote.”

“My grandpa was a bracero [guestworker]. My whole family understands what it means to be a guestworker with no protections,” she said. “So if I’m presented with a choice, as an undocumented person, to get citizenship, but allow another group of people to be treated as slaves, I’m going to say we need other solutions. I could not have tolerated the fact that they weren’t giving migrant workers the protections they need.”

Even Clinton’s staunchest supporters, including Rep. Gutierrez, acknowledge that Sanders’ campaign has offered strong pro-immigrant policies, including a ban on private prisons, an end to raids that round up undocumented immigrants, and a path to citizenship for the roughly 11 million undocumented people currently living in the U.S.

“I’m happy he’s with us today. I’m happy he’s changing,” Gutierrez told reporters as he traveled Las Vegas to stump for Clinton. “But that doesn’t make up for years of inaction. We have long memories and we remember who has always stood with us. Hillary is the only one we can trust to lead 11 million people out of the shadows and into the light.”