One of the most important moments in this election happened at a high school library in Nevada.
Nearly a year ago, Hillary Clinton spoke to young undocumented immigrants and their families at Rancho High School in the working-class neighborhood of North Las Vegas, where 40% of the population is Latino. The setting was risky — just the kind of event that activists have turned into protests, with videos that travel far and wide.
Her words were directed at Jeb Bush.
She would offer a “path to full and equal citizenship” she said, while Bush, a favorite to win his party’s nomination, supported earned legal status — or as Clinton dismissed it, “second-class status.” That wasn’t unusual. Nor was her support for “comprehensive immigration reform.”
What she said next, however, was. “If Congress continues to refuse to act,” Clinton told the activists, she “would do everything possible under the law to go even further.” She wanted the parents of DREAMers, the parents of those seated around her, to be eligible for protection from deportation.
Clinton would prove to be very, very wrong about Bush. But she was correct about the driving issue of the election. The event would prove to be one of the most significant moments in the Democratic primary, and the policies Clinton outlined that day and as a result of that day will inform an election dominated by immigration policy, and the increasingly polarized approaches by both parties.
While Donald Trump talks of the wall and a far more restrictionist immigration policy, Clinton began her campaign with likely one of the most liberal immigration platforms ever adopted by a mainstream Democratic candidate.
And the entire event was conceived of and organized in a week.
After the campaign’s morning call, a top campaign official, Marlon Marshall, called the Nevada director Emmy Ruiz — at this point, brushing her teeth — with an idea. Clinton would head to Nevada the next week, and they wanted to do a roundtable with DREAMer activists.
Together, Ruiz and Jorge Neri, the Nevada organizing director, had held the same general election roles in 2012, when Obama won Nevada with the highest margin of any battleground state and 70% Latino support.
Now they were being asked to pull off the equivalent of an 8-Mile-esque freestyle rap battle in a week — casual and informal, in front of real deal activists, with maximum news, with minimal disaster.
Just months before, DREAMer protesters had disrupted Clinton’s speeches all over the country, pressing her and other Democrats on deportation policy. In the eyes of the activists and many Latino Democrats, Clinton herself had erred seriously in the past, saying she would send most unaccompanied minors back to their home countries during the border surge of 2014, and in 2008, when she opposed driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants.
In North Las Vegas, the campaign invited activists just like these to sit in a small room with the candidate, for an hour, with dozens of reporters.
“You never know when someone is going to decide to become a YouTube sensation,” said Jose Parra, a former senior adviser to Harry Reid. “It was a definitely a risk, that amount of time is an eternity anywhere, let alone in front of rolling cameras.”
The young activists didn’t want the Clinton campaign to view their involvement as an endorsement. They are the type that are wary of participating in a high-profile event — the dangers of going home looking like a push-over or a sell out are too high. They came to the event expecting to come at Clinton strong, to keep her honest.
“We’re not one entity, this is not a photo op, we want her to be authentic with us,” said Blanca Gamez, who earned two degrees at UNLV, and has since endorsed Clinton of the sentiments she expressed to the Clinton campaign at the time.
Clinton has not been protested as often in the past year on immigration, as she likely would have been, if she stuck to an "immigration reform" and pathway to citizenship-only script. She also had a very simple advantage in a key state like Nevada and elsewhere: Staffers already had existing relationships with prominent and local activists.
“Emmy and Jorge knew all the players,” said national political director Amanda Renteria, who also took an active role in planning the event. Neri’s “life’s work has been immigration reform,” Ruiz said — he had the relationships with activists, he was trusted. Jorge Silva, a skilled operative in Reid’s office who eventually joined the campaign and worked on the event, also had longstanding connections with activists.
“To be honest, they knew how skeptical we were of her stance on policies,” said Astrid Silva, an activist whose story was elevated by Harry Reid to rally support for the DREAM Act. (She knows Jorge Silva well enough from the experience that she affectionately calls him primo — cousin — because of their shared last name.)
“We expressed to them for a really long time how skeptical we were, not only of Clinton, but of all the candidates,” she added.
The activists even offered to tell the campaign the kinds of questions they’d be asking — the answers they wanted, often answers not given by politicians — before the event. We don’t want anything, was the message that came back from the campaign.
If that sounds risky, the campaign took other precautions.
To avoid a damaging “YouTube” moment, Jorge Silva spoke with the activists about the dual role activists can play: one outside the room, yelling toward it versus another sitting down at the table and getting things done, a message recently echoed by President Obama on the subject of the Black Lives Matter movement.
To make the conversation flow, Neri and Jorge Silva made sure the activists jotted down their stories, which were put into a memo given to Clinton. During the roundtable, she deftly went from DREAMer to DREAMer, at times prodding them to reveal more details of their family story — details she clearly already knew, like whose parents were eligible for DAPA, and who had an exemplary GPA.
(This is pretty normal for campaign or political staffers to do for people like a senator or President Obama. “I hate when people say she studies an issue, it makes her sound like she’s in the books,” Renteria said. “Her studying comes from listening to real people.”)
For Ruiz, the roundtable was the beginning of a process of engaging the activists, which she said was followed by “partnership, then endorsement, to now fighting for her.”
While those moments included the influential roundtable, there were also quiet, under the radar days in a long but eventually victorious Nevada campaign. At Table 54 restaurant in Las Vegas in December during a lunch before the holidays, Ruiz and Neri went outside for a policy call with senior advisor Maya Harris. Also on the call were the DREAMers Astrid and Blanca Gamez.
“You need activists yelling and you need those sitting at the table,” Astrid Silva said. “Here in Nevada we’ve had the role of being both, being heard and providing real solutions.”
Policy calls like that eventually led to what the roundtable participants viewed as a breakthrough.
At an immigration townhall days before the February Nevada caucus, Clinton said she would move to work on immigration in her first 100 days as president and addressed a question that Sanders, who spoke before her, hadn’t quite answered. Clinton, she said, would end the laws that require undocumented immigrants to leave the country for three- and 10-year periods before returning. (Both candidates have connections to the law. Bill Clinton signed the bill that included the 3- and 10-year bar, while Sanders voted for it.)
Blanca Gamez, who brought up the 3- and 10-year bar, was pleased by Clinton saying she would move to change the law.
“You saw the growth and progression since May, her evolving as a person and as a candidate and taking into account what we said and what our families said,” Gamez said.
The spring roundtable not only momentarily won over immigration activists quite comfortable opposing Clinton, but even surprised two well-known DREAMers who would eventually join the Sanders campaign.
Cesar Vargas, who has taken Clinton to task on immigration since going to work for Bernie, called on Clinton to go beyond Obama administratively, just a day before the roundtable. After the event, Erika Andiola told BuzzFeed News she was “happy,” calling it “a really great step recognizing what she could do.”
Chuck Rocha, a consultant for the Sanders campaign, said the May 5 event reinforced the importance of the Latino vote in 2016 and credited her campaign.“It was about understanding that the tip of the spear is the DREAMer movement,” he said.
With some exceptions in caucus states (Nevada and Colorado), Clinton has won Latino voters by wide margins, especially in the country’s most Latino states. Although Sanders has dominated with young voters, Clinton’s successful coalition — older voters, the affluent, and most importantly, people of color — reflects the idea of “the Obama coalition” or in other words, an increasingly diverse Democratic Party.
“The reason it’s been very difficult for Sen. Sanders to tap into our communities is because we started these conversations early,” Renteria said.
As Clinton moves to lock up the nomination after a strong showing on Tuesday, the challenge will be how she can bring over Sanders supporters still passionate over a hard-fought campaign. Rocha said it’s imperative for unity to happen eventually to defeat the Republican nominee.
“No matter who wins the nomination, neither one of them can win the general without the other one’s percentage of the Latino vote in those states,” he said.
Clinton will want the support of Bernie supporters like Jose Macias, a Nevada activist for Fight for 15, the minimum wage campaign. This support may not seem totally imminent: Macias stingingly likened Clinton’s support for a $12 federal minimum wage to those who would say “all lives matter” in response to the “black lives matter” movement.
Still, Macias, who was impressed by the May 5 event that featured activists he has worked with in Nevada, said he would support Clinton if Sanders loses.
He framed it as a choice on issues that matter to individuals, rising above the particular candidate.
“As a Bernie supporter, I will support Hillary if she is the nominee and people will do the same thing if they’re passionate about immigration or raising the minimum wage, black lives matter or education,” he said. “In the end, they will go out not for the candidate, but for the things they believe in.”
And if the DREAMer roundtable served as a flag planted in the Democratic primary, the contrast will be perhaps the sharpest policy gulf in a general election matchup with Trump or Ted Cruz, who have both called for building a wall along the border and deportations of those in the country illegally.
“That wall image, that got said a year ago, is a tangible way for people out there to get it,” Renteria, who is Mexican-American said. “My son said, ‘They’re going to throw Mexicans over that wall.’”
The policy shift to the left, though, isn’t without its perils. Daniel Garza, executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, which is backed by the billionaire Koch brothers, has often criticized Trump and Cruz for their immigration policies, but said Clinton will struggle to forge consensus on immigration now that she has said she will go further than Obama did.
“No matter what she promises, she isn’t going to deliver unless she reconciles her positions with Republicans” in Congress, Garza said.
Still, the Clinton campaign believes the general election contest will be decided by those in the middle, and that those who are anti-immigrant will never support her.
“We’re going to talk to people on the fence and educate them on why immigration is important and why these changes need to happen,” Neri said.
Gamez said in Nevada she sees signs of a Latino community offended and taken aback by the Republican frontrunner Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric. Last week, when she worked a citizenship fair, she asked “Why now?” to a 40-year resident only now choosing to become a citizen and vote.
The response? “Because of this election, I have to be here for my brothers and sisters.”
While Clinton may have the political and policy advantage, immigration and Latino issues may never come completely naturally. As she began speaking at the roundtable, she said Cinco de Mayo was an “especially appropriate day to be having this conversation.” (It’s a holiday that produces a shrug from most Mexican-Americans and Hispanics; it’s mostly used by Americans as an excuse to get drunk and eat Mexican food.)
But, at least with this group of skeptical DREAMers turned ardent surrogates, Clinton’s relationships led to trust and a different kind of familiarity.
Minutes before the roundtable last year, Astrid Silva introduced Clinton to the group. When it came to Juan Salazar, who owns a pool company with his father and used to sell tacos, she lapsed into an old nickname, introducing him as “Taco Juan,” which Clinton couldn’t get enough of.
“What? I love tacos,” Clinton said. “What kind of tacos?”
And now when she sees Silva, the question comes fast.
“How’s Taco Juan?”