In recent weeks, I’ve been speaking on college campuses about how immigration, Latino voters and the presidential election all fit together.
Donald Trump doesn’t fare well in my remarks. But neither do Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz or Bernie Sanders.
Clinton is all over the map on immigration. While serving in the Senate, she bragged to a conservative radio host in New York in 2003 that she was “adamantly against illegal immigrants.” She supported building Trump-like border walls when she voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006 because, as she told the New York Daily News, “a country that cannot control its borders is failing at one of its fundamental obligations.”
Later, in 2014, Clinton told CNN that child refugees from Central America “should be sent back” even though they didn’t have access to a lawyer or the benefit of a hearing to determine whether they had the legal right to remain in the United States.
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This stance wasn’t just heartless. It was also ironic given that the majority of the refugees were coming from Honduras – the same country that Clinton helped shatter when, as secretary of state, she backed the military coup that toppled President Manuel Zelaya and resisted global pressure to reinstate him.
Cruz is a brilliant lawyer who vows to end “sanctuary cities.” But the concept is a myth, and the Texas senator must have been absent the day that his Harvard Law School professors taught that there is no city in America where federal law doesn’t apply.
Cruz is also the son of a Cuban immigrant and someone who says he wants to revamp the immigration system but never mentions scrapping the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which welcomes Cubans into the United States on a magic carpet.
Besides, even if Cruz got elected president, and suddenly wanted to fashion an immigration solution to please the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he would face an additional hurdle. Because he is Latino, some opponents of immigration reform in both parties would insist that he was “going native” and caving in to his ethnicity.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ protectionist instincts extend beyond trade and spill into immigration. He has said that open borders were a plot by right-wing business interests to create a flood of low-skilled workers to lower wages.
He voted against a deftly crafted bipartisan compromise immigration reform bill in 2007 that would have granted legal status to the undocumented. He claims that he cast that vote on the advice of Latino advocacy groups.
That’s hard to believe given that, on many other issues, ranging from trade to education reform, Sanders defied those same groups. The truth is that Latinos have never been on the radar of the Vermont senator, and – despite passing references to immigration recently in stump speeches – this hasn’t changed.
Still, Trump takes the prize. A master marketer with a Ph.D. in human nature, he figured out that many Americans believe that the U.S.-Mexico border is being trampled by illegal immigrants who take jobs from Americans, then sponge off U.S. taxpayers for schooling, medical care and other benefits.
Also, Trump sensed that many Americans were concerned that immigrants were dangerous, and so he cast Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers and positioned himself as the person who could protect the citizenry by building a “big, beautiful wall.” Immigration is a complicated issue, but Trump has taken a simplistic approach.
By the way, in portraying immigrants as criminals, the Republican front-runner borrowed a page from President Barack Obama who, in arguing that his administration is focusing its enforcement efforts on unsavory characters, has often fallen back on the racially charged phrase “gang-banger.”
Only John Kasich gets immigration right. He deserves kudos for standing up to those elements of the GOP that believe you can reverse the demographic changes that have occurred in America over the last 30 years if you deport enough people, hire enough border guards and build enough walls.
We’re not going to deport 11 million people, Kasich tells Republican audiences. In fact, he says, if you elect him, he’s likely to give the undocumented a path to legal status.
And unlike with Democrats, who will forever be compromised by their blind devotion to anti-immigrant labor unions, when Kasich says these things, you get the sense that he actually means it.
Lately, there is much talk about how Latino voters have so much power. They don’t. Like other Americans, what they have are choices. And, if the immigration debate is any indicator, almost all of them are bad.
Ruben Navarrette Jr., formerly of Sanger, is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.