Clinton apologizes for calling immigrants "illegal" — but not for her anti-immigrant record

Clinton calling immigrants "illegal' is offensive. But her support for a border fence is reprehensible and deadly.

Published November 25, 2015 8:32PM (EST)

  (Reuters/Katherine Taylor)
(Reuters/Katherine Taylor)

“I voted numerous times when I was a senator to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in,” Clinton said at a recent campaign stop in New Hampshire.

After a lot of criticism, Clinton apologized for calling immigrants “illegal.”

“That was a poor choice of words,” she said, making amends.

But there was apparently no apology for her “numerous” votes “to spend money to build a barrier to try to prevent illegal immigrants from coming in.”

The term “illegal” is offensive when applied to a human being. But the migrant deaths caused by the sort of border militarization measures Clinton has supported are far more reprehensible because they have been deadly.

In 2006, Clinton voted in favor of the Secure Fence Act, mandating “at least two layers of reinforced fencing, installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors extending” across at least 700 miles of the 1,969-mile border with Mexico, according to the Washington Office on Latin America. Bernie Sanders, then a member of the U.S. House, voted against it.

The fencing complex was never completed in its entirety due to a cost that would have reached more than $4.1 billion, according to WOLA. Nevertheless, hundreds of miles of fencing were built. The upshot of border militarization has been death.

According to Border Patrol, deaths along the Southwest Border rose from 263 in 1998 to 380 in 2000, 454 in 2006 and 471 in 2012.

The U.S. Government has spent more than $130 billion on border surveillance and security over the past two decades, according to an August story in the Arizona Republic. According to Border Patrol, their force of agents grew from 4,139 agents in fiscal year 1992 to 9,212 in 2000 and 21,444 in 2011.

All of that militarization has resulted in death for migrants because it has pushed border crossers out into dangerous places like southern Arizona's Sonoran desert. It has also caused rampant civil rights and liberties violations against residents border communities who are subject to Border Patrol stops and searches conducted without regard for normal Fourth Amendment protections.

Clinton no doubt has “evolved” on immigration and backs measures to grant undocumented people legal status. She has also morphed from a critic of providing drivers licenses for undocumented immigrants in 2007 to this year, a supporter. Former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer recently told David Axelrod that he had pulled his proposal to provide licenses ahead of the election in part because of behind-the-scenes pressure from the Clinton campaign.

"We heard from folks [on Clinton's campaign] who said they want this issue gone," Spitzer said on Axelrod's podcast, according to the Huffington Post's account. "I thought the issue was a metaphor for her vacillation."

Clinton, however, has never vacillated on border militarization, let alone apologized, as far as I can glean (and her campaign does not respond requests for comment from me).

Some Clinton partisans make the strange argument that Hillary can benefit from Bill's legacy when it proves beneficial and duck it when it proves controversial. In today's Democratic Party, immigration would be one of those areas where Bill Clinton's record would be extremely controversial.

President Clinton, as University of San Francisco law professor Bill Hing told the Republic, presided over a dramatic increase in border militarization.

This included, per the Republic:

 “Operation Gatekeeper, which was aimed at stopping illegal immigration along the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego by deploying more Border Patrol agents, and installing fencing, ground sensors, lights and other technology...

Clinton also signed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, a sweeping bill passed by the Republican-controlled Congress that was aimed at cracking down on undocumented immigrants through a wide range of punishments. Those included barring undocumented immigrants from returning to the United States for up to 10 years, and expanding the list of crimes for which legal immigrants could be stripped of their status and deported.”

Hillary Clinton has no doubt embraced policies far more humane than those put forward by her increasingly nativist Republican opponents. That, however, is nothing to brag about. Insulting migrants is reprehensible. Forcing them into the desert, increasing their chance of death, is something much worse.

By Daniel Denvir

Daniel Denvir is a writer at Salon covering criminal justice, policing, education, inequality and politics. You can follow him at Twitter @DanielDenvir.

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