Campaigns for Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders spar on immigration before Miami debate

Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debate in Flint, Mich., on March 6.
Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders debate in Flint, Mich., on March 6. AP

The campaigns for Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton criticized their opponent’s record on immigration the day before the Miami debate.

Immigration has been a divisive topic in the GOP primary. As Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have argued about the 2013 immigration bill, Donald Trump has drawn attention for his proposal to building a wall between the United States and Mexico — and make Mexico pay for it.

But the Democrats have also argued about their own records on immigration — a particularly hot topic in Florida where 15 percent of Democratic voters and 11 percent of Republican voters are Latinos.

Here’s a look at an immigration attack line by Clinton and Sanders before the showdown at Miami Dade College.

Sanders on 2007 immigration reform

Clinton’s campaign has attacked Sanders for voting against a 2007 immigration reform bill which would have allowed illegal immigrants to live and work in the U.S. and create a temporary guest worker program.

“I voted for comprehensive immigration reform in 2007,” said Clinton, a former New York senator, during the debate in Milwaukee. “Senator Sanders voted against it at that time. Because I think we have to get to comprehensive immigration reform with a path to citizenship.”

At the time, Sanders said he opposed it because he said it didn’t do enough to protect workers.

“I voted against it because the Southern Poverty Law Center, among other groups, said that the guest-worker programs that were embedded in this agreement were akin to slavery,” he said at the February debate. “Akin to slavery, where people came into this country to do guest work were abused, were exploited, and if they stood up for their rights, they'd be thrown out of this country.”

The Southern Poverty Law Center issued a report in 2007 “Close to Slavery: Guestworker Programs in the United States.”

“Congress should reform our broken immigration system, but reform should not rely on creating a vast new guest worker program,” said report author Mary Bauer in 2007. “The current program is shamefully abusive in practice, and there is almost no enforcement of worker rights.” (The center updated the report in 2013.)

Sanders also said that LULAC, one of the largest Latino organizations, and the AFL-CIO, also opposed it.

Frank Sharry, director of America’s Voice which supports immigration reform, said in an interview that the section of the 2007 bill that dealt with temporary workers was written almost exclusively by Republicans. It allowed workers to come in but without family and they had to leave after two years without a path to citizenship.

“The critique: it tied workers to employers, gave them no meaningful recourse if they were exploited, and made sure they could never settle here,” Sharry said. “Bottom line: come here and work hard for an employer you are tied to, and then leave without having the chance to settle.”

That was different from the 2013 bill which was negotiated by labor and business and allowed low-skilled workers to come on renewable three-year visas without the requirement that they leave after two years, Sharry said. And it had more labor protections in the case of exploitation.

Sanders supported the 2013 immigration bill which passed the Senate but stalled in the House and died.

Clinton and driver’s licenses

Clinton’s campaign deflected questions about her change of position on drivers’ licenses for undocumented immigrants.

In 2007, New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer had proposed giving driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants.

“I know exactly what Gov. Spitzer’s trying to do and it makes a lot of sense, because he's trying to get people out of the shadows,”" Clinton told the editorial board of the Nashua Telegraph in October, according to an article about it in the New York Daily News in October 2007. “He's trying to say, “Okay, come forward and we will give you this license.’”

During an Oct. 30, 2007 debate, co-moderate Tim Russert asked her about her comments and Spitzer’s plan. She gave a muddled answer in which she made a case for and against it.

“You know, Tim, this is where everybody plays gotcha. It makes a lot of sense. What is the governor supposed to do? He is dealing with a serious problem. We have failed, and George Bush has failed. Do I think this is the best thing for any governor to do? No. But do I understand the sense of real desperation, trying to get a handle on this? Remember, in New York we want to know who's in New York. We want people to come out of the shadows. He's making an honest effort to do it. We should have passed immigration reform.”

A couple weeks later she issued a statement saying she opposed it:

“As President, I will not support drivers' licenses for undocumented people and will press for comprehensive immigration reform that deals with all of the issues around illegal immigration including border security and fixing our broken system.”

She has since changed her position.

In April 2015, a Clinton spokeswoman told the Huffington Post: “Hillary supports state policies to provide driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants.”

Clinton herself addressed it during a town hall in February.

“Back then, it was a state-by-state determination, and I'm happy that most states have understood and moved in the right direction,” she said.

In a conference call with reporters Tuesday, Clinton surrogates didn’t answer questions about why she changed her position.

“Today our goal has moved well beyond driver's’ licenses,” U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Illinois said. “We are talking about citizenship. As president she will fight for that.”