Bernie Backers Say Hillary’s Attacks on His Immigration Record Are ‘Appalling’

"It is more an act of desperation that it is an act of truth."

Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Sen. Bernie Sanders.

COLUMBIA, S.C.—On the day of the Nevada Democratic caucuses, top Latino surrogates for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign aggressively pushed back against charges from the Clinton camp that the Vermont senator is not a true friend of the immigration reform movement.

Sanders supporters, including Congressman Raúl Grijalva of Arizona, a co-chair of the House Progressive Caucus, said this afternoon that the recent broadsides from Hillary Clinton’s surrogates were “appalling” and a “little pathetic.”

“At the end of the day, these attacks on Bernie are only a consequence of a campaign that now has proven resilient and very, very strong,” Mr. Grijalva said on a conference call organized by the Sanders campaign. “It is more an act of desperation that it is an act of truth.”

Punching back against Clinton surrogates like Julian Castro, the Housing and Urban Development secretary, and Illinois Congressman Luis Gutiérrez—who both attacked Mr. Sanders for voting with the “anti-immigrant right” when he opposed a 2007 immigration reform bill—Mr. Grijalva said he would’ve stood with Mr. Sanders and voted against the legislation because of a provision that would have greatly expanded the number of guest workers in the U.S.

“It was a more a gift to corporate America for cheap labor,” the Arizona congressman said. “It was exploitative.”

As Mr. Grijalva said, the AFL-CIO and some Latino organizations also opposed the legislation, a bipartisan effort spearheaded by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, on those grounds, as well as a fear the guest workers could drive down American wages. The congressman took special aim at Clinton surrogates for spreading what he called “disingenuous information” and “distortion.”

“My colleagues that have been saying that, they’re friends, but the information is wrong and desperate and is a little pathetic to watch.”

The conference call came as Mr. Sanders and Ms. Clinton are locked in a surprisingly tight race in Nevada, where a growing minority of the Democratic electorate is Latino. After a resounding victory in New Hampshire, Mr. Sanders is looking to pull off the upset in the Silver State, once thought of as safe Clinton territory. The battle for Latinos has led to a clash over the Clinton and Sanders immigration records, neither of which are pristine.

As Sanders surrogates pointed out today, Ms. Clinton has waffled on supporting giving drivers’ licenses to undocumented immigrants. In her first presidential campaign in 2008, she was against it, but endorsed the idea last year as it’s grown more in vogue with Democratic voters. Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, signed into a law a 1996 provision that blocks undocumented immigrants from returning to the United States legally for a wait period of either three or ten years. Though she endorsed the provision then, she has now vowed to repeal it if she becomes president. (Mr. Sanders, as a member of the House, also voted for this provision.)

Mr. Sanders’ supporters said his criticism of Wall Street and growing income inequality, which has led Ms. Clinton to deride him as a “single-issue” candidate, meant he was approaching the immigration debate in a more “holistic way.”

“Senator Sanders understands the power of the 1 percent, the power of the corporations and how they have managed to really devastate the lives of working people both here in this country and elsewhere,” said Isabel Garcia, an immigration activist and former legal defender in Pima County, Ariz.

Other backers took aim at Ms. Clinton for saying relatively little about the pace of deportations that increased under the Obama administration. (Ms. Clinton, as her campaign pointed out today, did last year call President Obama’s immigration “strategy” “no longer workable.”)

“I’ve yet to hear her either condemn Obama or [Bill] Clinton for the massive deportations of children,” said Alfredo Gutierrez, the former majority leader of the Arizona State Senate.

He added that the attacks on Mr. Sanders’ record are “frankly appalling and offense.”

One element of Mr. Sanders’ history that went unmentioned by his supporters in their initial remarks was the eyebrow-raising vote to defend the Minutemen, an anti-immigrant private militia that patrolled border states. After the militia claimed the U.S. was tipping off the Mexican government about their whereabouts, the Republican-controlled House voted on an amendment to bar this from happening again. Ultimately, the vote meant little from a logistical standpoint, but Mr. Sanders joined the GOP in supporting it.

A Sanders spokesman said last year he voted for the “nuisance” amendment because it was “meaningless.”

Updated with comment from the Clinton campaign. Bernie Backers Say Hillary’s Attacks on His Immigration Record Are ‘Appalling’