Hillary Clinton is against federal agents raiding undocumented immigrant families’ homes, except when she isn’t.
The former Secretary of State said last night at Fusion’s Brown & Black Democratic Presidential Forum that she is OK with deporting immigrant children on a case-by-case basis but doesn’t support using raids to apprehend them. Her comments come in the wake of a series of raids conducted by the Department of Homeland Security targeting families who fled Central America in 2014.
“Let me say this,” Clinton told the panel of questioners. “I would give every person, but particularly children, due process and have their story told. And a lot of children will of course have very legitimate stories under our law to be able to stay.”
She added that she opposes raids on immigrants’ homes.
“They are divisive,” she said. “They are sowing discord and fear.”
Her new anti-raid position is a sharp departure from her past stances on the issue. In fact, as recently as 2014, she expressed support for sending undocumented children who crossed the Mexican border back to their home countries.
Immigration attorneys who represent children say Clinton can’t have it both ways—given her history of support for deportation-heavy enforcement of immigration law, they’re not convinced she’s had a change of heart.
“Which unaccompanied child refugee isn’t deserving of protection?” said Matthew Kolken, an immigration attorney who represents immigrant children. “How are they going to deport them? They’re going to have to deport them by going into their homes to physically take them, which is a raid.”
“I don’t believe a word that comes out of her mouth,” he added.
Bryan Johnson, another immigration attorney who represents children and families, said that supporting the practice of deporting children means supporting raids.
“If ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] is going to remove a child that’s ordered removed and they’re a fugitive, typically the only way for them to do that is to arrest them wherever they are,” he said. “And that’s what a raid is, basically. So she thinks she’s against raids, but at the same time, she’s not.”
Since the number of unaccompanied children illegally crossing the southern border spiked in the summer of 2014, the White House has moved to try to burnish its tough-on-immigration bona fides by taking some controversial steps—namely, locking up mothers and small children in family detention centers run by for-profit prison companies, and conducting raids around the country to apprehend and deport children and their parents who came here illegally.
Many of these young immigrants come to the U.S. seeking asylum from Central American gang violence. The Guardian reported in October that more than 80 immigrants the Obama administration deported to Central America were subsequently murdered.
While Clinton’s stated opposition to raids is new, it still makes her the most hawkish Democrat on immigration enforcement. Bernie Sanders has promised to use “humanitarian parole” to let some deported immigrants return to the U.S. legally. And Martin O’Malley has called for an end to all immigrant detention except in cases of national security of safety threats. Compared to those two, Clinton’s current stance doesn’t look particularly progressive.
But over the course of her political career, she’s used rhetoric and held positions on the issue that would sound right at home on the 2016 Republican debate stage.
In the 2008 Democratic primary, for instance, she opposed state-level policies that let undocumented immigrants get drivers’ licenses. And as a U.S. senator, she suggested that people who eat at restaurants that employ undocumented workers are doing something wrong.
“We have to make it clear to employers that if you employ people illegally you’re going to have to pay a price,” she told a group of Long Island businessmen in 2006, according to Newsday. “I’ve had lots of constituents around the state tell me how much they’re against illegal immigration. I say, ‘Well, have you or anyone you know ever hired an illegal immigrant to take care of your yard or your child or have you ever gone to a restaurant where someone… might be illegal?’”
During her first term in the Senate, she won praise from right-wing commentators for criticizing businesses that hired undocumented workers.
“People have to stop employing illegal immigrants,” she said in a 2003 radio interview, according to The New York Times. “I mean, come up to Westchester, go to Suffolk and Nassau counties, stand on the street corners in Brooklyn or the Bronx—you’re going to see loads of people waiting to get picked up to go do yardwork and construction work and domestic work.”
That hawkishness reemerged in 2014, when undocumented immigrant children crossing the southern border drew national headlines. At the time, she told CNN that the children crossing the border should face deportation.
“They should be sent back as soon as it could be determined who responsible adults in their families are,” she said. “There are concerns about whether all of them can be sent back but I think all of them who can be should be reunited with their families.”
Clinton’s new way of talking about the issue has drawn some praise, though it’s tentative.
“I can’t imagine condoning the deportation of a child,” said Lynn Tramonte, deputy director of the pro-immigration reform group America’s Voice. “At the same time, we are excited and encouraged that she is criticizing raids.”
Tramonte added that supporters of immigration reform don’t put too much stock in comments like Clinton’s.
“We’re not going to put our faith in any one politician and blindly hope that they follow through on their commitments,” she said. “We’re going to hold them to what they promised us.”