Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders vied with each other Thursday night to see who could pander the most to illegal immigrants. Both also bashed Republican front-runner Donald Trump — and Hillary got booed.
The candidates appeared one after the other at the town hall in Las Vegas. The MSNBC event, held just two days before the Nevada caucuses, featured an audience heavy with Latino voters. Two of them asked their questions in Spanish while co-host Jose Diaz-Balart translated for Sanders and Clinton.
Both candidates said they would renew President Obama’s executive orders shielding many illegal immigrants from deportation and would go further if legally possible. Clinton vowed to push for legislation that would make the actions permanent and binding.
“I’m hoping if we win back the Senate and we win the White House again, the Republicans are going to see the error of their ways and quit using immigrants to divide our country and quit taking the kind of mean-spirited actions they do,” she said. “You know, I was the first person to call out Donald Trump. I said, ‘Basta.’ Enough of this prejudice and paranoia and the kind of language that he uses.”
For his part, Sanders used a question from a Muslim doctor to bash Trump.
“It is absolutely unacceptable to me that in the year 2016, we have people like Donald Trump and others who are trying to gain votes by scapegoating people who may be Muslims or may be Latinos,” he said.
Since they were not on the stage at the same time, Sanders and Clinton did not have the opportunity to confront each other directly. But they traded accusations from afar. Clinton again criticized Sanders for voting against an immigration reform bill in 2007. Sanders said he opposed it because it contained a provision about guest workers that the senator likened to slavery.
At one point, a woman in the audience said her husband has been living in Mexico for six years because he was deported after a conviction on drug possession charges. She said he cannot return for four more years. Under U.S. law, people who are deported are barred from re-entering for three or 10 years, depending on how long they were in the country illegally.
“What you just described is unacceptable and should not be happening,” Sanders said. “My immigration policy is to unite families, not to divide families.”
When Clinton came out later, she gave her own answer, unsolicited.
“I will end the three- and 10-year bar provision so that you do not have to face that ever again,” she said, although later she acknowledged it would likely take congressional approval to achieve.
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Questioners pressed the candidates to make immigration their top priority as president. Clinton said she has a number of legislative priorities and that immigration is “among those issues.” She said she would submit comprehensive immigration reform within the first 100 days.
Sanders said, “It is a top priority,” before adding, “I’m not a dictator here.”
Clinton and Sanders also debated the legacy of former President Bill Clinton.
“I want to get back to the kind of job creation we had when my husband was president,” the former first lady said.
Sanders said the former president’s “so-called welfare reform” increased child poverty. He also criticized Bill Clinton for deregulating the financial industry and pushing through the North American Free Trade Agreement. He said he first offered the critique not to take a gratuitous shot at the former president but to respond to attacks that have been leveled at him.
“Bill Clinton has been on the campaign trail making some very nasty comments about me, and I was asked about that,” he said.
Hillary Clinton drew boos from the otherwise friendly crowd when — after saying Sanders had attacked Obama — she suggested the reason might be that “Sen. Sanders wasn’t really a Democrat until he decided to run for president.”
She turned to the crowd, saying, “It’s true … You know it’s true. It happens to be true,” and quickly won the crowd back.
At another point, Clinton expressed impatience with a primary fight that seems likely to drag on deep into the calendar. She suggested that the sooner Democratic voters settle the competition in her favor, the sooner she can get on with lining up judicial appointments she wants to make and preparing legislation.
“I’m not going to waste a minute,” she said. “That’s why I want to get this nomination as quickly as possible so I can get to work on being your president.”