MIAMI — Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders emptied their opposition research files against each other on immigration at Wednesday night's Democratic debate, and along the way they talked jobs and education in the Latino community, as well as opening up Cuba and Puerto Rico's financial crisis, in the most substantive debate yet between the two candidates on Hispanic issues.
The debate, just ahead of the Florida primary, began with Sanders continuing his more combative tone of late in taking on Clinton as both candidates sought to frame their opponent as a paper champion on immigration.
Clinton was asked about past comments she made that she was adamantly against illegal immigration, as well as her comments that the children who came from Central America during the summer of 2014 should ultimately be sent back.
Was she a flip-flopper or "Hispandering" — pandering to the Hispanic community?
Clinton said that she had sponsored the DREAM Act in the past and pivoted to Sanders opposition to the 2007 immigration bill, which her campaign has made central to their argument that Sanders is late to being a supporter of immigrants.
Sanders again said the bill had guestworker provisions that amounted to slavery, but he was confronted with comments he made to Lou Dobbs at the time that guestworkers lower the wages of American workers.
Clinton argued that "it's very hard to make the case that Ted Kennedy, Barack Obama, me, La Raza, United Farmworkers, Dolores Huerta, leaders of the Latino community, would have supported a bill that actually promoted modern slavery" and called it an excuse for not voting for the 2007 bill.
Sanders — a week after releasing a five-minute mini-documentary about a Latina farmworker that ran nationally on Univision — was ready to hit Clinton on the two biggest blemishes on her immigration record: that she sought to stop New York state from implementing driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants in 2008, and that she thought unaccompanied minors who came from Central America should be given due process and care, but ultimately most should be sent back.
One of the "great human tragedies" of recent years, Sanders said, is children fled the violence of Honduras "and they came into this country. And I said welcome those children into this country. Secretary Clinton said send them back. That's a difference."
Clinton, who faced tough questions from Univision and its influential anchor Jorge Ramos, was asked whether she would promise not to deport children — something Ramos pressed her on in January. Clinton made a distinction between the asylum process and enforcement of deportation priorities.
She said she would not deport nonviolent immigrants and children who are outside of enforcement priorities, which is not a new position for her.
"I will not deport children," Clinton said. "I would not deport children. I do not want to deport family members either, Jorge."
The debate also featured robust discussion on other issues like the economy and education, which often outpace immigration as a key issue to Hispanic Americans
Clinton said her plan would create more small businesses, raise the minimum wage, and guarantee equal pay for women. Challenged on if these plans were too general, she pushed back.
"I've spent a lot of time and effort talking to and mostly listening to Latinos," she said. "Jobs are the number one issue, with rising incomes. Close behind is education."
But in Florida — which has the largest number of Cuban-Americans and more than 1 million Puerto Ricans, many of whom have fled an island in crisis — the loosening of the Cuban embargo and financial issues in Puerto Rico also came up.
Framing Cuba as the "welcome to Miami question," Univision said socialism is a negative term in the minds of many Latinos in Florida and asked Sanders about positive comments he made about Fidel Castro years ago.
Sanders said Cuba was an "authoritarian undemocratic country" but that they had made good advances in health care and were sending doctors all over the world.
He sided with the Obama administration saying that restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba would improve the lives of Cubans and help the U.S. and business community invest.
Clinton hit Sanders for previous comments that he supported the "revolution of values in Cuba."
"If the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people or even kill people for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech, that is not the kind of revolution of values that I ever want to see anywhere," Clinton said.
Discussing Puerto Rico, Clinton said she would work to help Puerto Rico restructure its debts in the first 100 days of her presidency, but hoped it wouldn't take that long.
Sanders noted that the issue of Puerto Rico has not come up during debates and said the "little island is $73 billion in debt, and the government now is paying interest rates of up to 11 percent."
He tied Puerto Rico's problems to the core of his campaign message that Wall Street was taking advantage of Americans.
"And many of the bonds that they are paying off were purchased by vulture capitalists for 30 cents on the dollar," Sanders said. "And what I have said in talking to the leaders of Puerto Rico, we've got to bring people together...But maybe some of these vulture capitalists are going to have to lose a little bit of money in this process."
The Florida primary on March 15 will once again test Clinton's strength with Latino voters in a large state, a group that she has done well with but where Sanders has made inroads due to his popularity with young people.
Clinton has repeatedly led in state polls, but the same was the case in Michigan, where Sanders won unexpectedly by improving with black voters.
But a topic both candidates offered a united front on was Donald Trump, whose comments about Mexicans and immigrants have cratered his favorability with Latinos in national polls.
Clinton and Sanders took aim at his two signature proposals: that all undocumented immigrants would be deported and that a wall would be built between the U.S. and Mexico.
"This idea of suddenly, one day or maybe a night, rounding up 11 million people and taking them outside of this country is a vulgar, absurd idea that I would hope very few people in America support," Sanders said.
Clinton — who went to a reception after the debate held by the Latino Victory Project, which works to elect Latino Democrats in downtown Miami — used Trump's blustery language to make fun of him in a moment that played well with the debate audience and likely would with Univision's audience at home, too.
"A beautiful tall wall," she said. "The most beautiful tall wall, better than the Great Wall of China, that would run the entire border. That he would somehow magically get the Mexican government to pay for. And, you know, it's just fantasy."
Adrian Carrasquillo is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, DC.
Contact Adrian Carrasquillo at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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