Ay Dios Mio

Hillary Clinton’s Latino Problem

What’s up with Clinton saying at that CNN town hall that kids crossing the border should be sent home? Believe me, Latino voters noticed.

06.24.14 9:45 AM ET

If the bond between Hillary Clinton and Latinos could be boiled down to a relationship status update on Facebook, it would read: “It’s complicated.”

Boy, is it ever. And the relationship between the all-but-certain 2016 presidential candidate and America’s largest minority—and arguably its most important group of swing voters—was made even more complicated recently when Clinton stampeded into the delicate immigration debate.

In an exchange that likely made many of her Latino supporters wince, Clinton wound up showing more sympathy toward President Obama for finding new and creative ways to deport 2 million people in five and a half years than she did toward the tens of thousands of Central American children who have, since 2011, streamed across the U.S.-Mexico border trying to escape gang violence back home and hoping to obtain the equivalent of Willie Wonka’s golden ticket—a permiso (permission slip) that allows the holder to remain in the United States. There is no such thing, of course, but the desperate tend to see things that aren’t there.

Clinton would no doubt have preferred to avoid the entire mess, but the pressure of helping one’s publisher earn back its advance tends to put people in situations where they have to do things they wouldn’t normally do. In a desperate bid to help the lackluster sales of her new book, Hard Choices, for which she was reportedly paid as much as $14 million, Clinton agreed to be the centerpiece of a special CNN Town Hall graciously intended to promote the book. The moderator was CNN’s Christiane Amanpour.

At one point, Francisco Gonzalez, a professor at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at John Hopkins University, took note of President Obama’s record of removing undocumented immigrants en masse and splitting up families with such speed and efficiency that, as Gonzales acknowledged, many Hispanics now refer to Obama as the “deporter-in-chief.” Gonzalez wanted to know what Clinton would do differently.

That was the softball lobbed over the plate, with the hope that Clinton would knock it out of the park by portraying herself as a kinder and gentler Democrat. Instead, she fouled out by trying to defend Obama and downplay the deportation crisis.

Clinton 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...is just not who we are as Americans.”

That comment did not go over well with the immigration advocacy group, United We Dream, which released a statement saying that Clinton’s remarks were “at odds with the realities faced by too many of our families” and demanding that Clinton pressure Obama to stop his deportation juggernaut.

According to a 2012 study by the Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project, about 1 in 4 Latinos know someone who has been deported. We have a front-row seat to the devastation visited upon immigrant communities by this administration. We don’t see any “moderating” in deportation figures. They continue to hover just below 400,000 per year, which—according to a recent article in The New York Times—is the predetermined “quota” that was set by the Department of Homeland Security in 2009.

Besides knowing people who have been deported, I also know a dozen or so immigration lawyers who spend their days in immigration court trying to prevent clients from being deported. Nothing I hear from them suggests that the deportation figures are “moderating.” Clinton obviously doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

That became very obvious when Amanpour asked her what she would do about unaccompanied minors who are coming across the U.S.-Mexico border from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. At first, Clinton tried to duck the question by talking in generalities.

Finally, after more prodding by Amanpour, Clinton said of the children, “Well, 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.”

What about those cases where the child’s family members live in the United States? Does Clinton expect us to separate them and send the child back across the border alone? Is this really the same woman who, after graduating from Yale Law School, went to work for the Children’s Defense Fund? Why won’t she defend these children?

Hint: It has something to do with running for president. She needs every vote, and every campaign contribution she can get. And there are votes and contributions to be gotten from Americans who are fed up with border crashers—even the pint-sized variety.

“We have to send a clear message,” Clinton said. “Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn't mean the child gets to stay. 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.”

Speaking of encouragement, given those comments, a lot of Latinos who supported Clinton in 2008—when she beat Barack Obama by a 2-to-1 margin with Latino voters—are going to need some of it to vote for Clinton in 2016.

Ironically, before the town hall, she was in good shape with Latinos. Last year, a poll by Latino Decisions found that she had a 73 percent favorability rate with that group.

In fact, in 2008, Latinos were a cheap date for Clinton. They even overlooked her condescending remarks in a Mexican restaurant in Las Vegas during the Nevada primary where—in a desperate attempt to relate to Latino voters—she suggested that all Americans are connected despite the fact that we divide groups by treating them “as though one is guacamole and one is chips.”

Wow. How did she know that’s how we talk to one another?

Still, it was enough for Clinton to regale Latinos on the stump with tales of how, more than 40 years ago, she spent the summer of 1972 in San Antonio where she registered Hispanic voters for George McGovern’s presidential campaign. For Latinos, what clinched the deal was her last name. President Clinton was hugely popular with Latinos, earning about 61 percent of their vote in 1992 and 72 percent in 1996.

Yet Bill Clinton also approached the immigration issue like a hardline restrictionist, speeding up deportations, militarizing the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego with Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 and signing the dreadful Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which makes it easier to deport people and harder for them to return.

Latino voters care about jobs, education, health care, and the economy just like other voters. But many also care about immigration, especially at moments like this when immigrants—or, more accurately, in the case of Central Americans, refugees—are under siege by everything from governmental inefficiency to militia groups amassing on the U.S.-Mexico border to fend off the child invasion.

On the immigration issue, the Clintons have never been part of solution. They’ve been too busy being part of the problem.

Now pass the chips and guacamole.