Mike Segar / Reuters

Clinton unveils citizenship plan for undocumented immigrants

Likely Democratic nominee says that a solution to US immigration problems includes an ‘equal path to citizenship’

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Tuesday said the nation needs to fix its broken immigration system and that future legislation needs to include a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

Clinton drew an early distinction with Republicans on immigration during a campaign appearance in Las Vegas saying that not a single Republican “is clearly and consistently” supporting a pathway to citizenship.

Clinton backed President Barack Obama's executive actions to protect undocumented immigrants from deportations — currently stalled due to court appeals. The former New York senator also said she would expand the protections if Congress failed to approve comprehensive immigration reform.

After years of delays on immigration reform in Congress, Hispanics and immigration activists were watching Clinton's statements closely for signs of how she might break a legislative logjam on the issue and whether she would extend Obama's actions to shield millions of immigrants from deportation.

Clinton has backed Obama's unsuccessful pitch for a comprehensive immigration overhaul, including a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally, and supported his announcement last year halting deportation for certain immigrants.

During the 2008 primaries, she wavered on and ultimately opposed allowing immigrants living in the U.S. illegally to obtain driver's licenses. Her campaign said last month she now supports state policies that allow driver's licenses under those circumstances.

Clinton’s announcement on Tuesday draws a sharp distinction with the GOP contenders in the 2016 presidential race. Some immigration observers say she is trying to distance herself from former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a likely candidate. Bush, a fluent Spanish speaker who is married to a Mexican-American, has appeal among Latino voters and has proposed legal status for undocumented immigrants and has not ruled out a pathway to citizenship.

The issue could be pivotal in the 2016 race. Obama received strong support from Hispanic voters during his two presidential bids, and immigration turned into a stumbling block for GOP nominee Mitt Romney, who received only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2012 and struggled in battleground states like Florida, Colorado and Nevada where Latinos are influential.

Clinton met on Cinco de Mayo with youths at Rancho High School in Las Vegas, where about 70 percent of the student body is Hispanic.

Many Republicans have opposed a comprehensive bill that includes a path to citizenship, saying any reforms must be made incrementally, beginning with stronger border security. Clinton's event in Nevada comes as Bush and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio have courted Hispanics and outlined steps to overhaul immigration.

At a conference of Hispanic evangelicals last week, Bush said immigrants living in the U.S. illegally should have an opportunity to attain legal status under certain conditions. He said such immigrants should be required to pay taxes, work and not receive government benefits.

Rubio, who is Cuban-American, worked on a failed bipartisan immigration bill that proposed a lengthy pathway to citizenship for those living in the country illegally. The measure cleared the Senate but was blocked by conservatives in the House.

He recently came out against the bill he helped push through the Senate, saying that it doesn't have enough support to become law and that an immigration overhaul should first focus on border security.

Obama's executive actions loom large in the immigration debate. GOP presidential candidates have said they would overturn the directives, which include the expansion of a program protecting young immigrants from deportation if they were brought to the U.S. illegally as children. Another provision extended deportation protections to parents of U.S. citizens and some longtime residents.

Twenty-six states, including Nevada, have sued to block the plan, and a 5th Circuit Court of Appeals panel heard arguments on the challenges last month in New Orleans. A ruling is pending.

Clinton was spending Tuesday in Nevada and attending a suburban Las Vegas fundraiser before a three-day fundraising trip to California. Nevada holds an early contest on the Democratic primary calendar and has been a battleground state in recent presidential elections. She won the 2008 Democratic caucuses there, but Obama came away with a slight edge in the number of delegates in the state because of his strength in rural areas.

Al Jazeera and wire services

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