LAS VEGAS — Staking a strongly liberal position on the divisive issue of immigration, Hillary Rodham Clinton said Tuesday that she wants to ensure that illegal immigrants can gain full citizenship under a reform of the patchwork system and the limited protections President Obama has put in place in the meantime.
Republicans want to make sure immigrants can never be more than “second-class” Americans, the Democratic presidential candidate said in sharply partisan remarks that could shake up the presidential contest by pushing immigration to the fore.
“We can’t wait any longer for a path to full and equal citizenship,” Clinton said in her most direct overture yet to Hispanic voters, who helped form Obama’s winning coalition.
The stance puts Clinton on the left side of her party and is a shift from positions she took as a senator from New York and a 2008 presidential candidate. Then, her support for comprehensive immigration reform was tempered with apparent opposition to the granting of driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants, and she held other positions unpopular with many Hispanics.
Hard-working immigrants who contribute to the economy and to their communities should not be “thrown away,” Clinton said at a meeting with students and young people at Rancho High School, where the student body is about 70 percent Hispanic. The people invited to talk with Clinton are among those protected from deportation by an Obama executive action because they were brought to the United States as children.
Clinton said she would go further, to include parents and others deemed deserving, with a priority on keeping families together.
It is “beyond absurd” to think that the approximately 11 million people in the United States illegally would all be deported, she added.
Citizenship — who can get it and when — is among the most difficult issues to settle in any remake of the nation’s chaotic and ever-changing set of immigration laws and rules. While insisting that people here illegally can become full citizens may not sit well with some moderate to conservative Democrats, Clinton is betting that more voters will be drawn to the new stance.
And she is betting that the position makes at least some of her Republican opponents uneasy. Many conservative Republican voters whose support candidates need in the primary stage oppose what they call “amnesty” for people who came to the country illegally. At the furthest right edge of the Republican Party, there are calls to deport all illegal immigrants.
“Not a single Republican candidate, announced or potential, is clearly and consistently supporting a path to citizenship. Not one,” Clinton said. “When they talk about ‘legal status,’ that is code for second-class status.”
Clinton’s reference to second-class status appears to be an effort to contrast herself most directly with former Florida governor Jeb Bush, a likely Republican opponent.
A fluent Spanish speaker whose wife is Mexican-born, Bush supports “earned legal status” for illegal immigrants, although he has suggested he might support some citizenship options.
Clinton has focused on immigration and citizenship issues early in her three-week-old campaign and with a frequency unusual for past Democratic candidates. Hispanics have voted largely Democratic for years, but concern that Clinton could be vulnerable to Bush’s appeal among Hispanics may be part of the reason for her immigration emphasis.
“Hillary Clinton can try to distract from her foreign-donor scandals by rolling out a new policy position, but her history of flip-flopping on this issue and many others only reinforces why voters see her as dishonest and untrustworthy,” said Ruth Guerra, Hispanic media director for the Republican National Committee.
Clinton is making Nevada, where about 25 percent of residents are Hispanic, her third campaign stop after Iowa and New Hampshire.
The outreach to Hispanic voters — on the Cinco de Mayo holiday — came as the Clinton campaign is expanding its defense of the candidate against allegations of influence-peddling and questionable financial dealings at her family foundation.
Polls suggest that Clinton is being damaged, if only slightly, by the continuing controversy surrounding a book, “Clinton Cash,” released Tuesday, that outlines possible improprieties while she was secretary of state.
On a new Clinton-backed Web site called “The Briefing,” campaign press secretary Brian Fallon says the book, by conservative author Peter Schweizer, is “full of sloppy research and attacks pulled out of thin air with no evidence.”
Also Tuesday, the Democratic National Committee announced that the party’s primary election season will feature six officially sanctioned debates. That’s a light schedule for a thin Democratic field and contrasts strikingly with the lineup for the crowded race for the GOP nomination.
The small Democratic field has fed speculation that the party might forgo debates altogether, with many critics accusing the party establishment of holding a “coronation” of sorts for the presumed front-runner, Clinton.
“We’ve always believed that we would have a competitive primary process and that debates would be an important part of that process,” said the DNC chairwoman, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fla.).
The four-earliest voting states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — will each host a debate starting this fall, in conjunction with the national party, local groups, and local and national media.
The Democratic field includes only Clinton and independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.). Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley and former senator Jim Webb (Va.) are among a handful of other potential candidates.
Clinton responded to the DNC’s announcement in a Twitter message, saying she welcomes the opportunity for “a real conversation.”
The Republican National Committee, for its part, announced this year that it is slated to hold between nine and 12 debates for the Republican nomination.
Jose A. DelReal in Washington contributed to this report.