Democratic presidential hopefuls talk immigration reform, economics at NCLR conference

This article appears in the La Iglesia Hispana feature series. View the full series.

Kansas City, Mo. — Three 2016 Democratic presidential candidates courted Hispanics in Kansas City, Mo., at an annual conference for the country’s largest Latino advocacy organization Monday.

The National Council of La Raza hosted former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley at the Kansas City Convention Center, where an estimated 7,000 people attended the four-day event.

All three candidates heavily emphasized comprehensive immigration reform as well as their economic platforms, intended to help underemployed and undereducated minorities while narrowing the wealth gap.

Sanders spoke first at 10:15 a.m., with last-minute attendance to the conference. The Democratic-Socialist running for president kicked off his speech calling for “serious debate regarding serious issues.” Declaring racism a “stain on human existence,” he invoked Pope Francis, who recently asked forgiveness for the church’s transgressions against native people during America’s conquest.

He recalled his previous activism for undocumented workers. True to form, he also highlighted statistics regarding childhood poverty in the U.S. (among the highest in developed nations), income inequality, youth unemployment, and voting barriers — all of which disproportionately affect American minorities

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Sanders said that as president, he would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, expand the Affordable Care Act, end voter suppression and overturn Citizens United. He also added that he would transform our energy system away from fossil fuels and work toward tuition-free colleges and universities.

“Maybe instead of building more jails and locking up more people, maybe — just maybe — we should be investing in jobs and education for our young people,” he said. “I want America to be known as a country with the best educated population in the world — not the country with more people in jail than any other nation.”

But O’Malley brought his record to the table when he spoke at 1 p.m. He noted the 36,000 undocumented immigrants in Maryland who now have access to higher education after he signed the state’s DREAM Act ahead of the federal government, and mentioned his expanding access to driver’s licenses for immigrants.

Economically, he pointed to his state’s 154 percent boost in government contracts with Hispanic businesses, also noting Maryland’s increase to a $10.10 minimum wage, frozen college tuitions four years in a row, and expansion on earned income tax.

All this helped Hispanic students in particular earn twice as many associate and bachelor’s degrees, he said, and kept the state’s Hispanic unemployment rate to one of the lowest in the country.

“Anyone can talk about it, but we actually did it,” he said. “Las palabras no son hechos” — words are not actions.

When Clinton took the stage at 4 p.m. to conclude Monday’s speeches, she also emphasized raising the minimum wage and lowering college costs. But she also argued for high quality early education for every four-year old, citing that although one in five American children is Latino, they disproportionately suffer from a vocabulary gap that begins at a young age and slows them down throughout their schooling.

“If you work hard and you do your part, you should be able to get ahead and stay ahead,” she said. “We are best when we lift each other up and leave no one behind.”

According to the La Raza communications department, in April the conference sent invitations to speak to all of the Republican presidential candidates that had announced their candidacy, but all declined to attend the event.

Though not present, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was the implicit man of the hour. While all three candidates and fellow keynote speakers of the day drew attention to his recent controversial remarks regarding Latino immigrants, candidates did not fail to nod at his party’s reaction and proposed policies.

“What does it say about the direction of today’s Republican party that Donald Trump calls new Americans of Mexico rapists, drug dealers, and murderers?” O’Malley said, alluding to Trump’s announcement of his candidacy. “And the best their leadership can summon up is that they’re ‘divided’? There’s nothing to be divided about.”

Where O’Malley pointed at the party’s reaction, Clinton noted the shared policies.

“Other candidates may condemn those words, but if you look at the policies, it’s hard to tell the difference,” she said, adding that conservatives use “double speech” when talking about immigration reform, such as saying they’d grant “legal status” to immigrants when they mean “second class status.”

“It’s not enough to use language of respect if you refuse to support policies of respect.”

But Sanders, O’Malley and Clinton were all willing to get specific regarding proposals on reform.

Hailing President Barack Obama’s executive order legalizing immigrants who arrived as minors, Sanders said he would go even further and include parents of children who have been living in the U.S. illegally since childhood.

“I believe there should be a responsible path to citizenship, so individuals can come out of the shadows, walk the street in safety, and hold their heads high, so people can have the protection of law and participate fully and openly in American society.”

O’Malley was unique in the lineup by addressing Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy and calling to end its “inequitable treatment” under Medicaid, Medicare and the Affordable Care Act.

“We must not let their economy collapse,” he said, also noting their economic and military contributions.

Clinton, like Sanders, would also expand the DREAM Act to include parents. And she emphasized the economic benefits that would result from “bringing millions of hard workers into the economy,” which she said would increase the U.S.’s gross domestic product by $700 billion over 10 years. This, she said, is not only an “economic imperative, but also a family imperative and a moral imperative.”

The candidates, though prepared to talk economics and reform, were also eager to relate to the rooms full of Hispanics: Sanders discussed his Polish ancestry and the family members he lost to the Holocaust. O’Malley alluded to his Irish immigrant grandfather and the “Help Wanted. No Irish Need Apply” sign he keeps on his desk as a reminder of that heritage. Clinton recalled the children of a family of migrant workers she babysat as a young girl and the Hispanic voters she helped register in the 1970s.

“Lastly, but not leastly,” Sanders said, concluding his speech, “think of a nation where every person in this country — no matter their race, no matter their country of origin, no matter their religion, no matter their disability, no matter their sexual orientation — that all of us come together to create the greatest country that anyone has ever seen, a country which works for all of our people. And we do it when we stand together, and we do not allow people to divide us, divide us, divide us.”

[Soli Salgado is an NCR Bertelsen intern. Her email address is ssalgado@ncronline.org.]


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