SAN DIEGO – People running for president say the darnedest things.
In both parties, it appears that politicians save the biggest whoppers for their own supporters. That makes sense. After all, they might butt heads with the opposing team but they get elected by winning over the votes of people who agree with them. Or at least, those gullible souls who can be fooled into thinking that they and the elected officials are actually on the same page.
The falsehoods get awfully thick when the issue of immigration comes up. Politicians are always trying to convince supporters that they’re something they’re not. For Republicans, that means a lot of chest-thumping about getting tough on the border. For Democrats, it means professing a willingness to find a way for the undocumented to stay in the United States.
Think for a moment about what Hillary Clinton said during a recent Democratic debate co-hosted by Univision and The Washington Post. In response to questioning by moderators Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas, who repeatedly tried to pin her down on whether she planned to continue President Obama’s deportation juggernaut, Clinton at first tried to duck the question. But eventually, she gave in and provided an answer that was unbelievable, unrealistic and unhelpful.
Before I tell you what she said, here is some context to explain why she said it. Whenever she talks about immigration during this campaign, Clinton does so with three goals in mind: trying to position herself to the left of Bernie Sanders, who, as Clinton never tires of reminding Latino and other pro-immigrant audiences, voted against comprehensive immigration reform bills in the Senate at the behest of organized labor; drawing contrast with likely GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, who has promised to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border; and pandering to Latino voters whose support for Clinton remains soft.
Still, in the end, Clinton has at least one thing going for her as she goes after Latino voters: She’s not Trump.
She’s also not Obama.
“I do not have the same policy as the current administration does,” Clinton said. “I think it’s important that we move to our comprehensive immigration reform, but at the same time, stop the raids, stop the roundups, stop the deporting of people who are living here doing their lives, doing their jobs, and that’s my priority.”
When Ramos pressed her on whether she would continue the administration’s practice of aggressively deporting children who already live in the United States, albeit without proper documents, Clinton dug herself in even deeper.
“I will not deport children,” she said. “I would not deport children. I do not want to deport family members either, Jorge. I want to, as I said, prioritize who would be deported: violent criminals, people planning terrorist attacks, anybody who threatens us. That’s a relatively small universe.”
Ramos wasn’t satisfied with that answer. Nor should he have been. The Obama administration has given “prioritizing” enforcement a bad name by putting some illegal immigrants (college-educated Dreamers) at the back of the deportation line while moving others (Central American refugees) to the front. The whole concept has become just another way for the White House to manipulate immigration policy to achieve political goals.
Determined to get more out of the candidate, Ramos broadened the question beyond children and asked Clinton point-blank if she, as president, would commit to not deporting “immigrants who don’t have a criminal record.”
Though she probably knew better, Clinton took the bait.
“Of the people, the undocumented people living in our country, I do not want to see them deported,” she said. “I want to see them on a path to citizenship. That is exactly what I will do.”
As you can see, the Democratic front-runner left herself some wiggle room – but not much. If elected president, she is likely to be as tough on immigration enforcement as Obama has been – if not tougher. Some of her supporters are bound to be disappointed.
But what did they expect? While Trump makes the outlandish promise to anti-immigrant voters that he will deport 11 million people, Clinton goes overboard by promising Latinos and other pro-immigrant voters that she’ll stop deporting the undocumented altogether. Those are promises that neither candidate can keep. So why bother making them?
Real problems require real solutions. And we can’t get there without real leadership.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.