Hillary Clinton’s Child-Deportation Flip-Flop

Clinton had a notable change of heart on immigration policy at the debate Wednesday—but advocates remain suspicious of whether she’ll ever follow through on her promises.

03.11.16 5:01 AM ET

In last night’s Democratic debate, Hillary Clinton swore up and down that she does not want to deport kids, no way, no how.

But immigration attorneys who represent young children facing deportation—often to some of the most violent countries on the planet—are pretty skeptical that it’s a promise she will keep.

“If in fact there is another refugee crisis this summer, we have no idea what her statements will be,” said Matthew Kolken, an attorney with Kolken & Kolken Immigration Lawyers. “The best person to ask would be a pollster.”

Clinton struggled mightily to communicate last night that deporting children is bad.

“I will not deport children,” she said after moderator Jorge Ramos pressed her multiple times on the issue. “I would not deport children. I do not want to deport family members either, Jorge.”

It was a significant moment, and it represented a departure (or, one might say, flip-flop) from her previous stance on the issue. Just two months ago, at a Democratic candidate forum, Clinton defended the practice of deporting children.

“I would give every person, but particularly children, due process and have their story told,” she said at the time. “And a lot of children will of course have very legitimate stories under our law to be able to stay.”

And less than two years before that, Clinton argued passionately that undocumented children in the United States be subject to deportation. On June 17, 2014, she told Christiane Amanpour that children fleeing from violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala shouldn’t be able to stay in the U.S.

“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.

“We don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws, or we’ll encourage more children to make that dangerous journey,” she added.

In other words, deport the kids to keep them safe.

At the debate this week, Clinton claimed she’s ditched that view. That may be because Bernie Sanders—and, before him, Martin O’Malley—pushed her to the left on immigration. Sanders drew plaudits from many activists when activists Erika Andiola and Cesar Vargas joined his campaign. BuzzFeed reported that each major Democratic campaign reached out to Andiola for advice. The fact that she went with Sanders has heartened many pro-comprehensive-reform activists.

“They have educated Sen. Sanders about what the issues are, and I believe that he gets it,” Kolken said.

Some exit polling indicated that Sanders won the Hispanic vote in Nevada, though a Clinton campaign spokesman said that was “utter bullshit.” Regardless, the surprisingly competitive primary seems to have pushed Clinton much further to the left than she may have gone otherwise—forcing her to say she’s abandoned long-held views on immigrant rights.

But not everyone is convinced she meant what she said.

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“For the immigration lawyers that are in the trenches working directly with immigrants, she has no credibility to cover her very troubled past in creating anti-immigrant laws,” said Bryan Johnson of the firm Amoachi & Johnson.

“You can’t evolve over a month-long or year-long period,” he added. “It’s just political expediency for her. She’s realized that it’s a political liability to take the position that she should deport children.”

And Ava Benach, an attorney with Benach Collopy, added that Clinton’s previous stated view resulted in loss of life—and that, thus, she has a credibility problem.

“She has supported and defended the administration’s aggressive approach since the numbers of children showing up increased,” Benach said. “And that’s an approach that’s led to detention and illness and deportation and death.”