It has been 10 years since the immigration marches of 2006 began when activists marched against a proposed federal crackdown on immigration. In spring 2006, a bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives that would make it a felony to be in the United States without documentation; ultimately this bill did not become a law. Instead of advancing a progressive and humane agenda on immigration, both Hillary and Bill Clinton have failed the Latino community on immigration reform.
Weeks before voters in California passed Proposition 187 in 1994, which called for preventing undocumented immigrants from receiving any public benefit, the Clinton administration announced Operation Gatekeeper, which was designed to curtail illegal immigration at the southern border between San Diego and Tijuana. One of the goals of this effort was to push migrants who sought entry into the U.S. to the east (to the desert). Since Operation Gatekeeper was implemented, it is estimated that over 6,600 migrants have died on the U.S. side of the southern border, and the remains of another 1,000 migrants have been unidentified.
In October 2014, on the twentieth anniversary of Operation Gatekeeper, Pedro Rios, the director of the American Friends Service Committee’s U.S.-Mexico Border Program in San Diego stated, “Operation Gatekeeper has created a human rights disaster along the border, and our policymakers are silent about it. It is a shameful legacy that represents a failure in policy making when militarization is prioritized over human needs.”
Not to be outdone by Republican opponents in 1996, just weeks before his re-election, President Bill Clinton signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, whose goal was to prevent the flow of undocumented migration into the U.S. This law increased resources for border patrol, enhanced enforcement and penalties against migrant smuggling, created tougher sanctions for undocumented immigrants caught inside of the U.S., and gave rise to the 287(g) program that enabled the federal government to delegate immigration enforcement to state and local law enforcement agencies. The 287(g) program empowered local law enforcement officials like Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Arizona to engage in racial profiling and to allow local law enforcement agencies to check the immigration status of anyone booked into jail.
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The 1996 immigration bill that President Clinton signed is credited with fueling the massive incarceration of immigrants in the U.S. In 1996, there were 6,280 beds for detaining undocumented migrants on a daily basis. In 2010, the daily capacity for immigrant detention was 33,400. During his re-election campaign against Senator Bob Dole, the Clinton campaign even ran an ad highlighting his “tough anti-illegal immigration law.” When he could have displayed courage by advocating for a more humane and progressive “immigration reform” bill in 1996, Clinton pandered to the kind of voter who supported Proposition 187 in California in the general election.
As a senator, Hillary Clinton voted for the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which began construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. In November while campaigning in New Hampshire, Clinton said, “I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in, and I do think that you have to control your borders.” Clinton has now tried to pivot away from the rhetoric on the border fence (or wall) saying that it is now “time to do comprehensive immigration reform.”
In 2007, Senator Clinton supported then-Governor Eliot Spitzer’s (New York) decision to withdraw his plan to give driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. She then went further, saying that as president she would not support driver’s licenses for undocumented people.
By continuing to support a “get tough” approach on immigrants, Bill and Hillary Clinton have tacked to the right on immigration, making it more likely that their Democratic colleagues adopt the “get tough” rhetoric and implement the accompanying policies. In many ways, President Clinton set the stage for President Obama’s record-breaking deportations and booming immigrant detention situation, and Hillary Clinton has enabled it with her own rhetoric about sending a message to people fleeing violence in Central America.
When the unaccompanied minor crisis was heating up along the southern border in 2014, Hillary Clinton said that the children “should be sent back” to their native countries. Then in August of last year, Hillary Clinton defended her call to deport children who are fleeing violence in Central America.
The initial response from the Clintons on immigration has historically been about more enforcement, less relief, and deportation. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton have had opportunities to show leadership on immigration related matters that would be more tolerant and humane, but over time, they have sought approval from anti-immigrant voters only to soften their language later about “comprehensive immigration reform” and keeping families together after the damage has been done. One of the reasons why there hasn’t been meaningful “immigration reform” legislation since the mass marches and protests from ten years ago is because Democrats like the Clintons have championed ‘get tough’ policies that have bolstered bureaucracies and enterprises (private prisons) who have an incentive to maintain the status quo.