By Amy Chozick
LAS VEGAS — For months, Latino activists frustrated by President Obama’s inability to overhaul the immigration system have pressed Hillary Rodham Clinton about what she would do differently.
On Tuesday, she tried to answer those pleas. At a campaign event here, Mrs. Clinton, surrounded by children whose parents faced deportation, called for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
“We have to finally, once and for all, fix our immigration system,” Mrs. Clinton said at a round-table discussion at Rancho High School, where roughly 70 percent of the study body is Latino.
“It’s a family issue,” Mrs. Clinton said. “It’s an economic issue, too, but it is at its heart a family issue.”
She said that she supported Mr. Obama’s executive actions on immigration and that it was “foolish” to think the government could deport the estimated 11 million people who are living in the United States without papers.
She also sharply criticized Republican presidential candidates who favor granting legal status for some undocumented immigrants, but oppose citizenship.
“When they talk about ‘legal status,’ that is code for ‘second-class status,’” Mrs. Clinton said.
Many Republicans have criticized Mr. Obama’s plans for an overhaul as amnesty, a position the party’s conservative base shares. But candidates must tread carefully.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, whose wife is from Mexico, has said he supports a comprehensive immigration overhaul, but his aides have said he prefers a path to legal status.
Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican who is of Cuban descent, has backed away from his 2013 support for a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill, saying he would support a path to citizenship only if it followed tougher border enforcement laws.
Many of the students selected to participate in the discussion with Mrs. Clinton have parents facing deportation, but they themselves are eligible to apply for legal status. Astrid Silva, a 26-year-old who arrived from Mexico at age 4 and who Mr. Obama talked about in a televised immigration address in November, moderated the panel.
Ms. Silva and four of the other participants had been granted a stay from deportation under Mr. Obama’s 2012 program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which Mrs. Clinton said she supported.
She also called for reform of immigration enforcement practices “so that they’re more humane, targeted and effective” and for wholesale changes to detention facilities, which are privatized and, she said, often get paid per bed that is filled.
In her 2008 campaign, Mrs. Clinton won 63 percent of the Latino vote in the 16 Super Tuesday contests, compared with 35 percent for Mr. Obama. But since, she has been a subject of scrutiny, as immigration activists have grown increasingly frustrated with both parties.
Last June, Mrs. Clinton told CNN that the Central American children who crossed the Mexican border into the United States “should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are,” a comment that angered some young Latinos. (Mrs. Clinton later said that only those children without a family connection in the United States or another legitimate claim for asylum should be sent back.)
While campaigning on behalf of Democrats ahead of the midterm elections last year, Mrs. Clinton was dogged by young immigration activists to commit to reform.
After Democrats suffered significant losses in the midterm elections, Mr. Obama moved forward later in November with executive actions to protect millions of people from being deported, but those initiatives have been held up by a federal court.
Unlike Mr. Obama, who vowed in his campaign to pass an immigration bill in his first year in the White House, Mrs. Clinton would not commit to a firm timeline. She pointed to the 2008 financial crisis and all the unknowns of the Oval Office, but reiterated her belief that “we are a nation of immigrants” and that reform would be a high priority.
The speech played well among advocates for immigration reform who have been critical of Mrs. Clinton in the past.
“Wow. Hillary Clinton just bear-hugged immigrants and the immigration issue in a way that could shake up the entire 2016 race,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an advocacy group.Correction: May 5, 2015
An earlier version of this article misidentified the speech in which Mr. Obama mentioned Astrid Silva, an immigrant from Mexico who moderated a panel discussion with Hillary Rodham Clinton on Tuesday. It was a televised immigration address in November, it was not the State of the Union.
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