Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders clashed vividly over immigration reform and deportations during a contentious debate in Miami on Wednesday night. The two Democrats made aggressive appeals to Hispanic voters while also presenting themselves as the strongest candidate against Donald J. Trump, the Republican front-runner, in the general election.
Clinton, bruised by her surprise loss in the Michigan primary a day earlier, relentlessly attacked Sanders for opposing a 2007 bill that would have created a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally. Aiming her remarks at the large Hispanic audience watching on Univision, a Spanish-language sponsor of the debate, Clinton portrayed herself as a defender of immigrant parents and children and argued that Sanders was not a fighter on the issue.
“We had Republican support,’’ Clinton said. “We had a president willing to sign it. I voted for that bill. Senator Sanders voted against it.’’
She refused to let up when Sanders explained that he thought the guest worker provisions in the bill were “akin to slavery.’’ Clinton argued that she, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Hispanic groups would never have supported such a bill. Her broadsides finally became too much for Sanders when she accused him of supporting “vigilantes known as Minutemen who were taking up outposts along the border to hunt down immigrants.’’
“No, I do not support vigilantes — that is a horrific statement, an unfair statement to make,’’ Sanders said. “Madam Secretary, I will match my record against yours any day of the week.’’
In their final debate before major primaries in Florida, Ohio and other states Tuesday, the two Democrats were a study in contrasts as they made stark appeals to the demographic groups that they have come to prize. Clinton stuck to her promise to “knock down barriers’’ in employment and housing and to champion criminal justice reform and Social Security, hoping these priorities would inspire Hispanics, African-Americans and senior citizens and deliver her landslide victories in Florida and North Carolina.
Sanders’ rallying cries against the “rigged economy’’ and “establishment politics’’ were aimed at liberals, young people, working-class white voters and independents who could be decisive for him in Ohio, Illinois and Missouri, his top targets next week.
The Democratic debate, the eighth since October, came just three days after the candidates’ last face-off in Flint, Michigan, and less than 24 hours after Sanders was declared the winner of that state’s primary. His unexpected victory infused the Sanders campaign with excitement and fundraising momentum: He was on track to raise $5 million in online donations in the ensuing 24 hours.
Yet it was too early to know if Sanders could parlay Michigan into even bigger upset wins in Ohio and Illinois, where Clinton has had double-digit leads in polls (as she did in Michigan). Still, he projected self-confidence and optimism and fought back hard against Clinton’s attacks on immigration issues.
“Secretary Clinton prevailed upon the governor of New York, Eliot Spitzer, who wanted to do the right thing and provide driver’s licenses to those who were undocumented,’’ Sanders said. “She said, ‘Don’t do it,’ and New York state still does not do it.’’ He also noted that he had supported allowing children from war-torn Central American countries to enter the United States and asserted that Clinton’s view was “send them back.’’
“That is something 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.’’
Both candidates, who consistently praise President Barack Obama on most issues, vowed to end the mass deportations of his administration. “He is wrong on this issue of deportation,’’ Sanders said. Clinton said simply that she did not “have the same policy as the current administration.’’
Clinton projected steeliness throughout the debate and did not seem fazed by her loss in Michigan, taking comfort in her accumulation of more of the delegates needed to win the Democratic nomination: She has a steadily growing lead over Sanders in spite of his successes, because her margins of victory have been greater.
Yet Clinton was careful to show that she was not taking the nomination for granted, even pushing back against a question from one moderator about whether she had gotten ahead of herself in assuming she had all but beaten Sanders.
“I’m continuing to work hard for every single vote across our country,’’ Clinton said. “I was pleased that I got 100,000 more votes last night than my opponent, and more delegates.’’
Pressed on what she had done wrong in Michigan, she shrugged off the loss. “It was a very close race,’’ she said. “We’ve had some of those — I’ve won some, I’ve lost some. But, you know, I was very pleased by the overall outcome last night.’’ She noted that she had won the Mississippi primary and picked up more delegates than Sanders.
Both candidates sought to position themselves as the most formidable challenger to Trump, who has reasserted himself as the leading Republican candidate after winning Michigan and two other states Tuesday. Clinton argued that Trump was promoting “un-American views’’ and promised to “take every opportunity to criticize’’ him. Later, she mocked his centerpiece proposal to build “a very tall wall, right, a beautiful, tall wall, the most beautiful tall wall, better than the Great Wall of China,’’ which “he would somehow magically get the Mexican government to pay for.’’
Sanders mentioned polls that showed him beating Trump in theoretical matchups for the general election. He also argued that he could convince Democratic Party leaders and elected officials that “Bernie Sanders is the strongest candidate to defeat Donald Trump.’’
But Clinton and Sanders both sidestepped a direct question about whether they thought Trump was a racist, given his hostile comments about Mexicans and Muslims and his initial reluctance to disavow the support of the former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke.
Clinton instead described her long history of calling out Trump and criticizing his remarks, noting that at one point she had said “basta,’’ the Spanish word for “enough.’’ She added, “People can draw their own conclusions about him.’’
Sanders said he was confident that Americans would not elect Trump and pointed out that Trump had been a leading skeptic of whether Obama was born in the United States and eligible to be president. Sanders noted that no one had challenged him over the fact that his own father was born in Poland.
“Nobody has ever asked me for my birth certificate,’’ Sanders said. “Maybe that has to do with the color of my skin.’’
Both Democrats saw the debate on Univision as a major opportunity to reach Latino voters not only in Florida but also in Arizona, California, Illinois and other states with large Hispanic populations that will hold major primaries in the coming months. The debate moderators introduced the two candidates in Spanish, and a young mariachi singer, Sebastien de la Cruz, sang the national anthem before the debate shifted largely to English for the candidates, neither of whom is fluent in Spanish.
While Clinton is widely known and admired among Hispanic voters, Sanders is still introducing himself and trying to draw attention to his policy proposals, such as going beyond Obama’s use of executive authority and issuing new orders to protect young immigrants and their parents from deportation.
Clinton shares many of his immigration ideas, but advisers to Sanders believe that he has a more electrifying message: that Hispanics and others are struggling because of a lack of economic and political justice in America.
One of the most vivid moments of the debate came when a moderator, Jorge Ramos, pressed Clinton on whether she would drop out of the presidential race if she were indicted on charges related to her use of a private email server as secretary of state. At first she ignored the question, but when the moderators followed up, she dismissed it curtly.
“Oh, for goodness — that is not going to happen,’’ she said. “I am not even answering that question.’’