LAS VEGAS — If Hillary Clinton has her way, the final two days of campaigning before Saturday’s caucuses in Nevada will be squarely focused on immigration policy.
But not Bernie Sanders. The Vermont senator remains largely dialed in on his core message about economic inequality, his approach as disciplined and undeviating as ever.
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That’s what makes tonight’s town hall forum here, hosted by MSNBC and Telemundo, an important — and at times uncomfortable — moment for Sanders.
The Vermont senator hasn’t exactly shied away from talking about immigration policy in the state where polls show him in a close race with Clinton. He has repeatedly talked about his own immigration reform plan during Nevada campaign stops, and he has the support of some activists who have helped him take his pitch local. A group of DREAMers from around the country is even descending on Las Vegas to campaign for him this week.
And on the town hall stage on Thursday night, he fended off a handful of critical questions about his record, insisting that immigration reform was a high-level priority for him, but that he would need the cooperation of other lawmakers to bring in sweeping change as president.
“I’m not a dictator here,” he said. “It has to do with a little bit of cooperation from the Congress.”
And when a DREAMer who said she was supporting Clinton asked him about his opposition to the 2007 comprehensive immigration reform legislation, he pivoted to make sure the audience knew about his support for the 2013 bill on the topic.
“I voted for immigration reform in 2013 because it was a much better piece of legislation. I voted against the legislation in 2007 in an agreement with groups like LULAC, one of the large Latino organizations, the AFL-CIO,” and other liberal organizations, he said, because of a guest worker program provision he didn’t approve of — echoing an argument he made on the debate stage the previous week.
But for the most part, he has avoided engaging in much political hand-to-hand combat on the topic with Clinton — who won Nevada Hispanics by a 2-to-1 margin in 2008 — until last Thursday’s debate, when the two got into a stinging fight over their past stances.
After Clinton hit Sanders for voting against the 2007 legislation in the Senate, he shot back by bringing up her reaction to 2014’s child migrant crisis.
“If my memory is correct, I think, when we saw children coming from these horrendous, horrendously violent areas of Honduras and neighboring countries, people who are fleeing drug violence and cartel violence, I thought it was a good idea to allow those children to stay in this country. That was not, as I understand it, the secretary’s position,” he said, alluding to the guest worker programs as an explanation for his opposition to the 2007 bill.
Still, the topic is far from the core of his unflinching anti-Wall Street pitch — a striking difference with Clinton, who has placed immigration policy at the center of her in-state conversation. While his formula worked well for him overwhelmingly white New Hampshire, where he won by a blowout margin, it may not be a recipe for success in Nevada, where Hispanic voters compromised 14 percent of Democratic caucus-goers in 2008.
Recognizing that Hispanic voters will be pivotal to the outcome this year, Clinton and her allies across the party have pulled out all the stops to deny Sanders the upper hand on immigration, positioning the issue front and center in their public communications within Nevada.
At MSNBC town hall Tuesday, Clinton said that in her first 100 days she would introduce immigration reform legislation.
“We are absolutely gonna introduce legislation,” she said before affirming that, yes, it would make it into the first 100 days of a Clinton presidency.
Clinton also sought to remind voters about past Sanders votes — including his 2007 vote again.
“I voted for it, Sen. Sanders voted against it,” she said.
The former secretary of state continued to tout her support for the president and promised to carry on his policies, including his executive actions on immigration.
“I support the president’s executive order on it and I will do everything I can to make sure they are kept in place. As you know there’s a court action challenging them. I don’t know what’s going to happen now because of the Supreme Court situation but I will renew them,” she said. “I will go further if it’s at all legally possible and I will make this a big political issue because we need to keep those young people working, going to school being productive members of our society.”
On Thursday, just hours before touting the new endorsement of the Latino Victory Fund, Clinton’s camp rolled out its closing television advertisement in Nevada — an emotional 60 second clip of Clinton comforting a 10-year-old girl who told her she was worried her parents would be deported. The former secretary of state has also talked up immigration policy within the frame of the vacancy on the Supreme Court, telling a local crowd on Sunday that the “most important” case affected was “the decision regarding DACA and DAPA.”
“If there is no new justice appointed, then as with other cases before the court, the decision that was decided will stay in place. And that was a bad decision, I disagreed with it, I don’t think it was the right legal interpretation, I believe President Obama had the authority to do what he did,” she said in a largely Hispanic neighborhood in East Las Vegas.
The clearest signs that Team Clinton is eager to keep the Nevada discussion centered on immigration have been revealed through its attacks on Sanders — many of which effectively accuse him of being new to the fight.
Correct The Record, a Clinton-backing rapid response group that coordinates with her campaign, released an anti-Sanders video that features unflattering news clips and a scene of him talking about rejecting the 2007 legislation with Lou Dobbs. And an array of Latino Democratic lawmakers and officials who are backing Clinton have weighed in just as strongly.
“You can understand why it’s disappointing to see Senator Sanders talk up a record that just doesn’t exist,” said Housing Secretary Julian Castro, a vice presidential prospect, on a conference call hosted by the campaign on Thursday afternoon. “Senator Sanders consistently wasn’t there when we needed him the most.”
That call came one day after House Democratic Caucus Chairman Xavier Becerra, a California congressman, unleashed a series of tweets — followed by a Medium post — lacerating Sanders over his immigration stances in the past.
“We’ve been hearing a lot from @BernieSanders about supporting immigrant families of late. Where was he before he ran for president? @BernieSanders voted against Sen. Ted Kennedy’s comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007. Really? Yes. Really,” tweeted the congressman, who has also been mentioned as a vice presidential hopeful. “In ’06, #Sanders voted for a measure designed to protect the Minutemen — anti-immigrant militias on the border. Anyone claiming to be a defender of #immigrant families should’ve voted no. … If #Sanders is campaigning on immigration reform & supporting Latinos, fine. But he should explain his spotty record & how he’ll get it done. To know where you’re going you must know where you’ve been. Bernie, on #immigration, where have you been?”
And in an op-ed published on Univision’s website on Thursday, Illinois Rep. Luis Gutierrez went in for the kill.
“Six months ago, I did an interview with Larry King where I asked whether Bernie Sanders even liked immigrants or cared about Latinos and our issues. He had been silent on immigration and our other priorities and within a week or two, Sanders was talking about immigration. He was saying all the right things, but it raised a very important question in my mind: where was Sanders when we really needed him? I have observed Sanders first in the House of Representatives and later in the Senate and I have to say, he was absent from most of the crucial immigration debates,” he wrote, specifically mentioning Sanders’ lack of action against 2006’s harsh Sensenbrenner Bill.
“Even Representative Steve King, one of the most staunchly anti-immigrant members of Congress, stated, ‘I admire Bernie’s passion and I notice that his immigration position is closer than mine than it is to some of the presidential candidates on the Republican side.’”
Eliza Collins contributed reporting from Washington.