Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton went head-to-head on immigration reform and sought to prove neither were 'Hispandering' to the Latino Vote at Univision's Democratic debate in Miami, Florida, on Wednesday night.
The candidates were both forced to defend their records on immigration at the forum at Miami-Dade University, part of which was conducted in Spanish. Throughout the night, the candidates turned repeatedly to key immigration issues including unaccompanied minors, the 2007 immigration reform vote on guest workers and border security. In less than a week, voters will choose between the candidates in Florida, which has the third largest Hispanic population of any state (23 percent of the population). The state votes on March 15.
Clinton fielded tough questions from moderators and her rival on Wednesday, which focused largely on trust and allegations of flip-flopping. Early in the debate, Univision's Maria Elena Salinas highlighted inconsistencies with the secretary's previous statements on banning employment of illegal immigrants and recent efforts to push for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Salinas asked Clinton whether she was "pandering to Latinos [or] what some would call Hispandering?"
In response, Clinton highlighted her support for the DREAM Act, which would create a pathway to permanent residency and protect minor immigrants, as well as the comprehensive immigration reform bill of 2007, which Sanders opposed over concerns about guest worker programs. Sanders was forced to go on the defensive over the 2007 vote, comparing the guest worker provisions with modern slavery. He reiterated that Hispanic rights organization LULAC and the Southern Poverty Law Center were also against the legislation at the time and that he later supported an immigration reform bill in 2013.
Sanders went after Clinton over her response to the influx of children fleeing violence from Honduras to the US in 2014, saying: "I said welcome those children into this country, Secretary Clinton said send them back."
But Clinton called that a mischaracterization. "That is not fair about what I said," Clinton said. "I did say we needed to be very concerned about little children coming to this country — on their own, very often — many of them not making it. And when they got here, they needed, as I have argued for, legal counsel, due process, to make a decision. We need to end private detention, we need to end family detention.
Sanders was referring to a widely discussed 2014 interview Clinton gave to CNN. "They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are," Clinton said at the time, "because there are concerns whether all of them can be sent back but I think all of them who can be should be reunited with their families…"
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Univision moderator Jorge Ramos, whose daughter works on Clinton's campaign, later continued to press both candidates on whether they would promise not to be the "next deporting chief" by refusing to deport children and immigrants who don't have a criminal record.
Both essentially agreed not to deport minors, although Clinton was firm about following the law.
"I will do everything possible to provide due process," she said. "We have laws. That was the most critical thing I said. Under our laws. I would like to see those laws changed. I would like see added to them, a guaranteed counsel and other support for children."
Sanders was more straightforward in his answer, declaring, "No, I will not deport children from the United States of America."
"And can you promise not to deport immigrants who don't have a criminal record?" Ramos asked.
Sanders replied, "I can make that promise."
The senator also sought to highlight his own ties to immigrants through his father.
"My dad was born in Poland. I know a little bit about the immigrant experience," he said. "Nobody has ever asked me for my birth certificate. Maybe it has something to do with the color of my skin."
Later, Clinton accused Sanders of standing with "Minutemen vigilantes in their ridiculous, absurd efforts to, quote, 'hunt down immigrants,' which led to a heated exchange.
Sanders said that the secretary's most recent assertion that he supported vigilantes was a "horrific statement" and "unfair."
"There was a piece of legislation supported by dozens and dozens of members of the House which codified existing legislation," he explained. "What the secretary is doing tonight and has done very often is take large pieces of legislation and take pieces out of it."
"No, I do not support vigilantes," he added.
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Sanders did vote for an amendment in 2006 that prohibited the US government from passing information about the Minutemen's operations to foreign governments, namely Mexico. Sanders' campaign has defended his vote by saying that it was essentially meaningless and that other immigration advocates also supported it.
Current polls have Clinton well ahead of Sanders, besting the senator by as much as 30 percentage points in the Sunshine State, although pundits are reticent to predict an outright win for the secretary after Sanders' stunning upset in Michigan Tuesday night. There is no clear favorited among Latino voters, who were a central focus in Wednesday night's debate. Both campaigns have contested their support among Hispanics in several of the states that have voted so.
Immigration was not the only hot topic of the night at Wednesday's debate. Clinton and Sanders also sparred over health care, Wall Street funding to campaigns, policy on Cuba, and student debt and college tuition.
The Benghazi attacks, an issue which has not seen much light in Democratic debates, since Clinton pulled off a 11-hour grilling session from Republicans late last year, was also taken out to air Wednesday. Clearly the audience did not want to dredge up the subject, and instantly "booed" Ramos as he was mid-way through asking Clinton whether she had lied to the family of the victims who died in the attack in Libya. Ramos played a video of one of the mother's of the Benghazi victims, who accused Clinton of lying to the families about the attacks and blaming them on a video.
"I feel a great deal of sympathy for the families of the four brave Americans that we lost at Benghazi. And I certainly can't even imagine the grief that she has for losing her son, but she's wrong. She's absolutely wrong," Clinton said Thursday night.
Clinton blamed the seeming contradicting information on the "fog of war" and confusion in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. "I and everybody in the administration, all the people she named, the president, the vice president, Susan Rice, we were scrambling to get information that was changing, literally by the hour. And when we had information, we made it public," Clinton said. "But then sometimes we had to go back and say we have new information that contradicts it.
The ghost of Clinton's email server also made its first appearance at a Democratic debate since Sanders famously dismissed the issue at the first forum saying the country "is sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails."
"I think that what we've got here is a case of overclassification. I am not concerned about it, I am not worried about it, and no Democrat or American should be either," Clinton said to cheer Wednesday.
When Univision moderator Jorge Ramos pressed if she would consider dropping out if she was indicted over the email issue, Clinton appeared visibly irritated.
"Oh for goodness… It's not even going to happen. I'm not answering that question," she said.
The candidates head next to contests in the big delegate states of Florida, Illinois, Missouri, North Carolina, and Ohio next Tuesday.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields