Hillary Rodham Clinton has injected new fire into the immigration debate with her call to allow people in the country illegally to gain citizenship, challenging a centerpiece of Republican presidential prospect Jeb Bush’s likely candidacy.
The elevated focus on immigration shines new light on the growing willingness of Republican presidential contenders — including past opponents of an immigration overhaul in Congress — to let such immigrants stay in the U.S. Such a position is regarded as “amnesty” by the GOP’s tea party wing, yet it is quietly becoming the majority view in a 2016 Republican presidential class eager to attract Hispanic voters.
Clinton is just as eager to protect the Democrats’ advantage with that key voting bloc. “This will be a defining issue in the election,” Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook told CNBC on Wednesday.
The day before, Clinton drew a sharp distinction between herself and the Republicans, like Bush, who support a pathway to legal status that stops short of citizenship.
“When they talk about legal status, that is code for second-class status,” Clinton charged.
It’s unclear how much the distinction between citizenship and legal status matters to Hispanic voters, a growing slice of the electorate nationally and an important factor in presidential swing states such as Florida, Colorado and Nevada. For many, the priority is simply to avoid deportation.
The rhetoric of the GOP’s candidates reflects broad support for allowing such immigrants to stay, but only Bush has made that point a focus of his message to voters.
Bush’s aides view Clinton’s comments as a direct criticism and a sign that Democrats are worried about losing Hispanic votes to him. Bush is fluent in Spanish and uses it in his campaign. His wife is from Mexico, and he has lived in Venezuela and Puerto Rico.