Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

What Clinton doesn't get on immigration

By Ruben Navarrette, CNN Contributor
June 19, 2014 -- Updated 1722 GMT (0122 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Ruben Navarrette says Hillary Clinton doesn't seem to understand immigration issues
  • He says her answer at CNN Town Hall started out OK but strayed off message
  • As former Cabinet member, she should know executive branch power, he says
  • Navarrette: Clinton said she's sympathetic to immigrant families, but then took hard line

Editor's note: Ruben Navarrette is a CNN contributor and a nationally syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. Follow him on Twitter: @rubennavarrette. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Hillary Clinton wants Americans to believe that she made difficult decisions as secretary of state. That's the premise of her new book, "Hard Choices."

Somehow, I suspect that if Clinton had a do-over for this week's CNN town hall, she might choose not to field a hard question from Francisco Gonzalez. A professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Gonzales asked America's former top diplomat about President Obama's record of removing the undocumented and splitting up families with such efficiency that, as Gonzales noted, many Hispanics call Obama the "deporter in chief." He asked what Clinton would do differently.

Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

The likely 2016 presidential candidate started by declaring her support for "comprehensive immigration reform" because undocumented immigrants who are "raising families and working hard and contributing to our country deserve a path to citizenship."

So far, so good.

Gov. Perry: Immigrants told what to say
Amanpour reflects on Clinton Town Hall

She went on: "I also think that we have to understand the difficulty that President Obama finds himself in because there are laws that impose certain obligations on him."

Clinton doesn't seem to understand how much discretion the executive branch has -- in immigration enforcement -- to set policy, shape priorities, and decide who stays or goes.

After arguing with immigration reform advocates from 2009 to 2011 that he was powerless to stop deportations, Obama himself -- in a gesture intended to woo Hispanic voters during the 2012 election -- flexed his executive power when he announced a change in policy by the Department of Homeland Security that allowed some young undocumented immigrants to avoid deportations and obtain work permits.

Under Obama, DHS imposed quotas for apprehensions, The Washington Post reported, and roped local police officers into enforcing immigration laws as a force multiplier. The executive branch wasn't some spectator to the deportation juggernaut; it was the driving force. Shouldn't a former member of the Cabinet know this?

Clinton also said that it was her understanding that "the numbers have been moderating in part as the Department of Homeland Security and other law enforcement officials understood that separating children from families -- I mean, the horror of a father or a mother going to work and being picked up and immediately whisked away and children coming home from school to an empty house and nobody can say where their mother or father is -- that is just not who we are as Americans."

Apparently, Clinton doesn't know many immigration lawyers. The dozen or so that I know -- who give me updates about their battles to stop clients from being deported -- would not agree that the numbers of deportations are "moderating." There are still just under 400,000 per year.

Wrapping up her answer, she went on to say: "We need to show humanity with respect to people who are working, contributing right now. And deporting them, leaving their children alone or deporting an adolescent, doing anything that is so contrary to our core values, just makes no sense."

Yet, as secretary of state, Clinton sat at the Cabinet table for four years alongside Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano -- who went before Congress to brag about the number of deportations and promise to raise it. And she didn't say anything then? You know, in defense of humanity?

Right about then, Clinton strayed off message. When CNN's Christiane Amanpour asked her what she would do about the tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from Central America who are coming across the U.S.-Mexico border, Clinton at first tried to duck the question by talking about everything from violence in Central America to the need to provide emergency care to children who cross the border.

Fortunately, Amanpour pursued an answer. After asking the question -- whether these children should stay or be sent back home -- four different times, she finally got one.

Clinton opens up about marijuana views
Clinton: American soldiers not at risk
Hillary Clinton in 1975

"Well," Clinton said, "they should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are, because there are concerns whether all of them should be sent back. But I think all of them who can be should be reunited with their families."

It's not that simple. According to media reports, many of these young people came to the United States to be reunited with parents and other family members. What do we do with them? Separate more families? Didn't Clinton herself just say that this approach "makes no sense"?

Finally, having painted herself into a corner, she took a hard line.

Opinion: Does Hillary Clinton have to be so boring?

"We have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn't mean the child gets to stay," she said. "So, we don't want to send a message that is contrary to our laws or will encourage more children to make that dangerous journey."

What world is Clinton living in? When a child crosses the border, of course he or she gets to stay. That has long been the unspoken policy of U.S. immigration officials, under administrations in both parties. They can't just send these minors back across the border to be abused, assaulted, or worse. Instead, they're locked up for a couple of days and then released with a notice to appear before an immigration judge, which most of them ignore.

As for encouraging more people to come, that is precisely what conservatives predict will happen if we ever pass the kind of comprehensive immigration reform that Clinton claims to support. Is this her roundabout way of saying she agrees with them?

We already knew that Obama had flunked immigration. Clinton's comments this week suggest that she finds the subject just as challenging.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook.com/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 29, 2014 -- Updated 0430 GMT (1230 HKT)
Les Abend: Before we reach a conclusion on the outcome of AirAsia Flight QZ8501, it's important to understand that the details are far too limited to draw a parallel to Flight 370
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 0127 GMT (0927 HKT)
The ability to manipulate media and technology has increasingly become a critical strategic resource, says Jeff Yang.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1505 GMT (2305 HKT)
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
December 26, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
December 27, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
December 25, 2014 -- Updated 0633 GMT (1433 HKT)
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2312 GMT (0712 HKT)
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2027 GMT (0427 HKT)
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
December 24, 2014 -- Updated 0335 GMT (1135 HKT)
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1257 GMT (2057 HKT)
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 0429 GMT (1229 HKT)
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 2115 GMT (0515 HKT)
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
December 23, 2014 -- Updated 1811 GMT (0211 HKT)
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 1808 GMT (0208 HKT)
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 1853 GMT (0253 HKT)
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
December 22, 2014 -- Updated 2239 GMT (0639 HKT)
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
December 20, 2014 -- Updated 0112 GMT (0912 HKT)
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 1709 GMT (0109 HKT)
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
December 18, 2014 -- Updated 2345 GMT (0745 HKT)
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
December 19, 2014 -- Updated 2134 GMT (0534 HKT)
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT