With his self-immolating campaign to "make America great again," Donald Trump has put a lot of effort into make immigration one of, if not the biggest issue in the 2016 presidential race. Nearly every time the likely Republican candidate opens his mouth, he's promising Americans he'll build a "Trump Wall" along the southern border (and make Mexico pay for it), ban Muslims and birthright citizenship, and arm a militarized "deportation force"—among other things.
At this point, Trump basically has a monopoly on the issue, hogging the spotlight while reporters chase their tails, explaining once again that no, Trump isn't going to build a Wall, and no, Mexico definitely isn't going to pay for it. In the meantime, there is almost no discussion about what someone other than Trump—and specifically, Hillary Clinton—wants to do about immigration. With such a rich silt of xenophobia to sift through, it seems, most people aren't paying attention to the alternative.
Like Trump, Clinton has made the issue central to her presidential campaign, promising that if elected to tackle the chupacabra of immigration comprehensive reform within her first 100 days in the Oval Office. "Hillary has made a commitment that she wants to make this a signature issue and to prioritize this in her first 100 days, which is important and refreshing to hear," Todd Schulte, president of the immigration advocacy group FWD, told me. "She's made really clear that we have a fundamentally broken immigration system."
It's hard to imagine how the two 2016 candidates could be further apart. It's probably the most divisive issue in what is already the most polarizing presidential campaign in recent memory—one where the candidates fundamentally disagree on even what problem it is they are trying to solve.
Still, without both sides of the argument, it's hard to understand what's fueling all the reactive outrage surrounding this issue. So we asked immigration policy experts and legal experts to break down what exactly broke down what Clinton wants to do about immigration plan, to figure out what exactly people are voting for when they decide they're against Trump.
Citizenship for Undocumented Immigrants
The cornerstone to Clinton's immigration platform is the idea of giving undocumented immigrants a chance to live in the country legally—a sort of counterpoint to the mass deportations called for by Republicans. She hasn't specified exactly how her plan would work, or who would qualify, glossing over the more contentious details of a reform package. But any proposal would probably need to be passed by Congress—which means its prospects are already dim.
"One reason for her not to be too specific is to leave room for some political debate," said Bill Galston, a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution who worked as a policy advisor to former President Bill Clinton. "She's trying to convey a pretty detailed sense of what she'd do but it leaves questions. There's a difference between how specific you get when drafting legislation and campaigning."
How this potential influx of newly legalized workers would impact jobs and the economy is one of the key questions driving the anxieties of Trump's supporters. Immigration policy analysts I spoke to suggested that Clinton's plan could be similar to the Senate's 2013 comprehensive reform bill. The Congressional Budget Office estimated the bill would decrease the federal deficit by $197 billion over the first decade.
Clinton's plan could have similar economic effects, said Daniel Costa, director of immigration policy and research at the Economic Policy Institute, significantly increasing tax revenue by bringing undocumented workers into the legal workforce, while also increasing wages for low-income workers.
Conservatives aren't buying that. "The costs would be huge," "People say the benefits would be taxes—undocumented immigrants pay a lot of taxes now and would pay even more taxes if they were legalized, nobody disputes that," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies. But, he added, "the amnesty doesn't make them more skilled workers," he said. "They're still unskilled workers in high tech economy and they're not going to be able to earn much more."
Clinton's immigration plan had its first major setback last week, when the Supreme Court deadlocked over President Barack Obama's executive actions on immigration. The tie effectively derailed the administration's plans to grant temporary deportation relief to millions of undocumented immigrants living in the US. The programs would have shielded an estimated 5 million undocumented immigrants, mostly young people who were brought to the US as children, and the undocumented parents of US citizens.
From the beginning of her campaign, Clinton has aligned herself with this aspect of Obama's immigration policy, saying she would continue the executive actions, known as the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and DAPA (Deferred Action for Parent Arrivals), and expand the programs to include the parents of childhood arrivals. Republicans have said that the president doesn't have the authority to take these steps, and the actions have been challenged by Texas and 25 other GOP-led states.
After the Supreme Court's announcement last week, she said that the tie would not stop her from attempting similar executive action if elected president. "Today's decision by the Supreme Court is purely procedural and casts no doubt on the fact that DAPA and DACA are entirely within the President's legal authority," Clinton said in a statement issued the day of the decision. "That is why, as president, I will continue to defend DAPA and DACA."
Experts say that the justices' decision, which sends the case back to the lower courts, changes the calculus around Clinton's plans. On the one hand, if Clinton wins the White House and is able to confirm a justice to fill the vacant seat on the bench, the Justice Department could appeal the case to the Supreme Court again.
"She could say with some justification that if she's elected president and the Supreme Court is once again in full strength the court can take another bite of apple," Galston said. "Frequently issues come before the court more than once especially when the court is divided."
But the court's stalemate could also make it much harder for Clinton to pass those executive actions in the first place. "In terms of executive action she may be more limited as a practical matter. Texas and other states will feel emboldened by today's decision to try to stop Hillary's executive action," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration law professor at Cornell University. The only real solution, he said, is to get Congress to pass these reforms—a dim prospect for any president.
Reforming the Immigrant Detention System
The US immigration detention has ballooned since the turn of the millennium, doubling in size between 2000 and 2010 amidst a national crackdown on immigration. The bloated system, run largely by private, for-profit prison companies,currently incarcerates men, women, and even children, and the detention centers have been plagued by allegations of abuse, medical neglect, and sexual assault.
In a significant departure from the Obama administration's policies, Clinton has pledged to close these private-run detention centers. She has also promised to close the family detention centers opened by the Obama administration in 2014 in response to an influx of children and mothers seeking asylum from violence-plagued countries in Central America.
Immigration advocates aren't totally satisfied, pointing out that Clinton has not actually promised to decrease overall detention of undocumented immigrants. "We don't think immigrant detention should exist," said Christina Parker, who directs immigration programs for Grassroots Leadership. "There's a strong argument that the only reason immigrant detention so large is to profit two or three companies. So if you believe that then there would be no reason for them to exist after private contracts ended."
Parker added that the Democratic candidate should specify "how exactly and when exactly" the facilities would shut down. So far, Clinton has not.
Giving Obamacare to Undocumented Families
Apparently determined to excite maximum outrage from conservatives, Clinton has also promised to allow undocumented immigrants to purchase health insurance through the Affordable Care Act, although she has said that they should not qualify for subsidies—at least not at first.
Unsurprisingly, conservative immigration analysts I spoke with think giving undocumented immigrants healthcare is a bad idea, regardless of whether or not the taxpayer is on the hook. "Letting illegals participate in the government health care system is a quasi legalization of their status because they're not supposed to be here but they participate in these government institutions," Krikorian said.
He predicted that it would be a slippery slope to extending insurance subsidies, citing a 2010 report from his Center for Immigration Studies, which estimated that the government would pay an additional $8.1 billion if it offered Medicaid to all undocumented immigrants."If they're eligible for Obamacare subsidies that's just another form of welfare and it costs taxpayers huge amounts of money," Krikorian said.
Taking in More Syrian Refugees
Since the shooting in Orlando earlier this month, Trump has been warning Americans that Clinton's immigration plan would open the floodgates to Muslim immigrants, and make the nation even more vulnerable to Orlando-style massacres.
"Under Hillary Clinton you'd be accepting hundreds of thousands of Middle Eastern refugees into our country with no system to vet them," Trump declared in a speech the day after the massacre. "The burden is on Hillary Clinton to tell us why she believes immigration from these dangerous countries should be increased without any effective system to screen who we are bringing in."
He has since elaborated, claiming that "for the amount of money Hillary Clinton would like to spend on refugees, we could rebuild every inner city in America."
What Trump is referring to is Clinton's plan to take in 65,000 Syrian refugees, an increase from the 10,000 Obama promised to resettle last September. The proposal would require additional funding from the federal government, although far from the "hundreds of billions of dollars" Trump claims it would. In 2014, the government budgeted $582 million to resettle 70,000 refugees; Clinton's proposal to resettle 65,000 refugees would add 55,000 refugees to that 70,000 cap, which amounts to about $450 million in additional funding.
What She's Not Talking About
Vociferous has she may be about immigration, Clinton has remained suspiciously silent on some of the more controversial policy questions—questions that will need to be answered if she has any hope of implementing comprehensive immigration legislation.
Two areas in particular are conspicuously absent from Clinton's campaign platform. The first relates to the country's immigrant work visas, including those for skilled and unskilled workers—a program that experts agree is in dire need of reform.
"Something that is helping keep wages low in certain occupations are the temporary foreign worker programs," said Costa, of the Economic Policy Institute. "Candidate Clinton has been silent about these programs—which are the most controversial aspect of immigration reform. So it's impossible to know where she stands."
The second is more obvious, because it's the one her opponent can't stop talking about, namely, border security. Clinton has said little about what she would do to prevent illegal border crossings in the US, other than that her comprehensive immigration reform plan would also "protect our borders and national security."
Confirming conservative fears about the Democratic Party's commitment to protecting the border, Clinton said in a March primary debate that her focus as president would be on immigration policy reform, rather border security, because of the gains the government has already made on that front.
"We have the most secure border we have ever had," Clinton declared. "Apprehensions across the border are the lowest they've been for 40 years. Which just strengthens my argument that now it is time to do comprehensive immigration reform."
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