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Activists Push Back On Hillary Clinton Comments About Border Children — With An O'Malley Assist

Activists say Clinton opened up old wounds with comments about how to approach the Central American children who crossed the border last summer. But the O'Malley camp is also pushing advocates to scrutinize Clinton on the issue.

Posted on August 20, 2015, at 8:27 p.m. ET

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Immigration advocates Thursday expressed dissatisfaction with remarks Hillary Clinton made this week that they say amount to doubling down on her stance last year that most of the Central American children who streamed across the border should be given as much love as possible but most should ultimately be sent back.

On Tuesday, Clinton said her past comments were the "responsible" message to send to families in Central America.

"Specifically with respect to children on the border, if you remember, we had an emergency, and it was very important to send a message to families in Central America: Do not let your children take this very dangerous journey because a lot of children did not make it," Clinton said.

The children were robbed, raped, kidnapped, and held for ransom by smugglers, she added.

But immigration activists, who have largely refrained from challenging Clinton after her well-received roundtable with DREAMers in Nevada in the spring, said Clinton doesn't quite understand the dynamics at play that led to the surge of unaccompanied minors.

Calling her comments "out of touch," Cristina Jimenez of United We Dream (UWD) told BuzzFeed News that families sent their children to the United States understanding the dangers of the journey and ultimately because the situation in their home country was so bad.

"It opens up old wounds," said Arturo Carmona, who leads the 300,000 member Presente. "Wounds that we thought were being healed by her statements in Nevada, which were more positive in our opinion, and sent a promising message that she was coming to her senses and knew she needed to have a much more Latino-friendly position on immigration."

Campaign officials said Clinton's comments Tuesday should be taken in the full context, pointing to remarks she made to Univision and Telemundo in August calling for an end to the detention of women and children and that the U.S. "should not send any child back to the kind of harm that could await them."

Clinton on Tuesday said the country needs more resources to process children already in the country, to listen to their stories to find out if they have family here, and whether they have a legitimate reason for staying.

There's an additional political dimension to this, too. Officials with Martin O'Malley's campaign have sought to promote his immigration plan and draw contrasts with Clinton. The campaign's director of public engagement, Gabriela Domenzain, has spoken with activists, trying to get them to scrutinize her campaign more closely on the immigration issue.

United We Dream said it did not speak with the O'Malley campaign before releasing a statement hitting Clinton on Thursday.

But a source later disputed this, saying the campaign did speak with UWD activists.

Domenzain said she has longstanding relationships with advocates, checking in with them often, and has not only been focused on Clinton, but more broadly has tried to bring more attention to the ongoing issue with children who are in family detention.

Asked about the O'Malley campaign's stance on the children who come from Central America, Domenzain said it's simple: "These are refugees and we should welcome them."

The former Maryland governor's campaign proudly notes that the state has the highest number of unaccompanied minors being cared for per capita.

It wasn't just activists firmly on the far left who felt Clinton's comments missed the mark, though.

"I didn't like that she was defending her original comments," said Frank Sharry, of America's Voice, a veteran activist who worked closely with the Obama administration during the lead up to the executive actions on immigration last year.

"I didn't get that part. But I did see her comments as saying we need to make sure we have the resources so people can make their case and if they deserve protection they get it. I didn't think she was saying lets send the kids home, but lets make sure they have their day in court. That moving forward we should review detention and give them resources — to help the kids — not resources for deportation."

Sharry noted that that immigration movement is big and broad and often disagrees on the best way to move issues forward.

"The house is on fire and Trump is about to burn it down, the focus should be on him," he said.

Activists framed their disappointment with Clinton as a response to the Republican candidates and the current climate about birthright citizenship, which some Republican candidates (led by Donald Trump) have endorsed revoking for the children of undocumented immigrants. Though the unaccompanied minors are a different issue, the activists argue the conversation demonstrates why Clinton should be as bold as possible on it.

Erika Andiola, a prominent activist who this year has worked with some of the children that came from Guatemala, said if Clinton wants to better understand the issue she should visit shelters and speak to them and called on her Latino advisers to help her.

Lorella Praeli, a former prominent activist with UWD, who now serves as the Clinton campaign's Latino outreach director said she has not heard these concerns.

"My door's always open," she said. "If you want to have a conversation on this, if you think there are things we should do, come and talk to us."

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