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Clinton Announces First Federal Office of Immigrant Affairs Amid Heated New York Primary

Clinton Announces First Federal Office of Immigrant Affairs Amid Heated New York Primary

NEW YORK — As she stumped Wednesday in the shadow of Ellis Island, aides said Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will pledge to create a federal office to coordinate the integration of immigrants, refugees, and their families.

The move to open a U.S. Office of Immigrant Affairs will hold huge appeal to the sizable immigrant population in New York days before its April 19 primary, even if the plan itself is short on detail. It’s also a subtle move by the former secretary of state and New York senator to distance herself from President Barack Obama’s record on immigration — one that has led critics to dub him “deporter in chief.”

“This office will ensure that immigrants, refugees, and their children are able to become fully integrated members of their communities and country,” a Clinton aide said in a statement before the announcement.

Obama has drawn fire from the political right from executive actions that granted some reprieve to young immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and directed law enforcement to target its resources toward immigrants with criminal records. But he’s also been derided on the left for having removed more people from the U.S. than any other president. More recently, he’s come under heavy fire for launching a series of raids in early 2016 that primarily targeted women and children from Central America.

Obama has pledged to try to avoid breaking up immigrant families, but the administration defended the raids as a deterrent to a new surge in undocumented minors and families, mostly from Central America, which has overwhelmed the U.S.-Mexico border.

Clinton has criticized the raids.

“Our immigration enforcement efforts should be humane and conducted in accordance with due process, and that is why I believe we must stop the raids happening in immigrant communities,” Clinton said in a statement in January. “We shouldn’t have armed federal officers showing up at people’s homes, taking women and children out of their beds in the middle of the night.”

Clinton has a sizable lead in New York on Democratic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders, who represents Vermont but who speaks with a heavy Brooklyn accent. Sanders, who also has called for a stop to the administration’s deportation raids, trails Clinton by roughly 39 percent to 53 percent, according to a Real Clear Politics polling average as of Wednesday.

According to the Clinton campaign’s release, which also announced her endorsement by the New York State Immigrant Action Fund, one of the largest immigrant rights groups in the state, the federal office would build on the Obama administration’s 2014 task force to study integration services across the government. Clinton said she’d implement its modest recommendations, which include small-business training, grants for citizenship preparation programs, and an AmeriCorps federal public service program dedicated to refugees.

Sanders has aggressively sought the immigrant vote in New York and elsewhere to cut into Clinton’s base of support, to mixed success. On Tuesday, his campaign criticized Clinton for opposing a New York state proposal to grant undocumented immigrants driver’s licenses, in 2007. But some polls have indicated that Sanders has pulled almost even with Clinton among New York’s Latinos, who make up about 14 percent of the state’s eligible voting population, and many of whom are immigrants. He’s won eight of the last nine contests.

The Clinton campaign is going all-in in New York, hoping a sizable win in Clinton’s adopted, delegate-rich home state will block Sanders from narrowing his delegate deficit and deal the fatal blow to his unexpectedly strong challenge for the nomination. That would enable her to focus fully — backed by a united Democratic Party — on a Republican opponent in the general election.

New York billionaire Donald Trump remains the front-runner for the GOP nomination, and has taken the opposite route on immigration. He’s running on an anti-immigration platform but picking up key law enforcement endorsements, such as from a 16,500-member U.S. Border Patrol union.

While presidential candidates often make pledges they don’t pursue once in the Oval Office, Clinton’s announcement puts her on a collision course with Trump amid the continued debate on refugees, who would be helped by the office. In comments in New York this week, Clinton repudiated Trump’s calls for blocking Muslim refugees from being resettled in the U.S. and deporting an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

“Donald Trump says we can solve America’s problems by turning against each other,” Clinton said at a recent New York rally, highlighted in a new ad spot released Monday. “It’s wrong, and it goes against everything New York and America stand for.”

Photo credit: KENA BETANCUR/Stringer