By Ruben Navarrette
Washington Post Writers Group
On immigration, Hillary Clinton is a work in progress — and has been since she entered politics more than a dozen years ago. Depending on which audience she is trying to please, she assumes one of two conflicting personas: Restrictionist Hillary or Reform Hillary.
In 2003, Restrictionist Hillary told conservative radio host John Grambling that she was "adamantly against illegal immigrants" and that "we've got to do more at our borders."
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In 2006, while serving in the Senate, Restrictionist Hillary told the New York Daily News that she supported more fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border because "a country that cannot control its borders is failing at one of its fundamental obligations." That same year, she voted for the Secure Fence Act, which directed the Department of Homeland Security to construct 700 miles of double border fencing.
In 2008, during a presidential debate with Barack Obama, Restrictionist Hillary tried to woo organized labor by blaming lost jobs on "employers who exploit undocumented workers and drive down wages." She mentioned an African-American man who had told her: "I used to have a lot of construction jobs, and now it just seems like the only people who get them anymore are people who are here without documentation."
During that debate, Clinton also said that she didn't agree with "deporting people, rounding them up." Yet, while serving as secretary of state from 2009 to 2013, Restrictionist Hillary was part of an administration that turned that into an art form.
And in 2014, as more than 60,000 refugees from Central America — most of them unaccompanied children — crossed the U.S.-Mexico border, Restrictionist Hillary said coldly during a CNN town hall that the kids "should be sent back" because "we have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn't mean the child gets to stay."
Then there is Reform Hillary, who has emerged recently now that Clinton is once again running for president and needs the support of Latino voters who favor a more honest and more common-sense approach to the problem.
Last month, during a speech to the annual "Women in the World" summit in New York, Reform Hillary seemed to take a swipe at Republicans — but then again could have been talking about some Democrats — when she criticized those who "would deport mothers working to give their children a better life rather than risk the ire of talk radio."
The following week, Reform Hillary celebrated Cinco de Mayo by speaking at a mostly Latino high school in Las Vegas, where she called for illegal immigrants to be given "a path to full and equal citizenship." She also accused Republicans who support legal status for the undocumented but not citizenship of pushing "second-class status."
But what was Clinton pushing? A poison pill. "Full and equal citizenship" will never get through Congress. So by setting the bar impossibly high, Reform Hillary all but ensures nothing will be done. This suits her fine because she doesn't want to be known as a pro-amnesty Democrat any more than Obama did, and she'd rather have a wedge issue than a workable solution.
Finally, Reform Hillary — who, during a visit to Iowa in September, sprinted away from a group of undocumented young people who asked if she would continue Obama's "deferred action" — has chosen an ex-Dreamer as her campaign's Latino outreach director. Peruvian-born Lorella Praeli, who was undocumented for more than a decade before obtaining a green card, will also deal with the media on Latino issues, including immigration.
Praeli, who worked for the undocumented youth organization "United We Dream," has previously been critical of Clinton. Last year, Praeli blasted the candidate's double talk and told CNN: "If you want Latinos to stand with you. If you want the immigrant community to see you as a champion on this issue, you're going to have to make some difficult choices. And you're going to have to take a firm position."
What position will the likely Democratic nominee ultimately take on immigration? I don't think even she knows. What she says today could change tomorrow.
And like Obama — once the heat is turned up and divisions appear between various Democratic constituencies — she'll find it difficult to tell the truth, keep promises, remain consistent, and not betray supporters.
That is where character comes in. Does anyone know where Clinton can get some?
Reach Ruben Navarrette at email@example.com.