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Immigration As 2016 Issue Upped With Martin O'Malley's Candidacy

Immigration As 2016 Issue Upped With Martin O'Malley's Candidacy

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The heat that immigration has brought to the 2016 presidential campaigns could intensify Saturday with the addition of former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley to the Democratic field.

All expectations are that on Saturday in Baltimore, O'Malley will announce his bid to be the Democrats' 2016 presidential nominee.

When he does, supporters say he'll bring with him a record of work on issues of concern to Latinos and immigrants that rivals that of his fiercest Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Though he's considered an underdog with a big gap to overcome to win the Democratic primary, several Latino leaders consider him a stronger ally on immigration and support of the Latino community.

"Martin O'Malley, in his history as governor of Maryland, has been a real hero for the immigrant community. He not only supported many groundbreaking reforms in the state, he also became a national spokesperson for immigrant families and their human rights, especially the unaccompanied minors who arrived in droves on the border last year," said Kim Propeack, chief of political communication forCASA de Maryland - Maryland's largest immigrants services and rights organization - and director of its political arm.

That alone won't be enough to propel him to frontrunner, but it does serve to add even more attention to the place immigration is taking in the 2016 race, which can also set a tone for races down ballot.

"What this does is give our community a real choice," said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota.

"It will help sharpen (Hillary's) position and distinguish it from the Republican Party," said Stella Rouse, an associate professor in government and politics at the University of Maryland.

Maryland's Latino population has been booming in recent decades and now is about 9 percent of the state's population. About 80 percent of the Latino population is non-Mexican, according to Pew Research Center.

As governor, O'Malley signed a bill allowing young immigrants illegally in the U.S. to pay in-state college tuition and to a bill to get driver's licenses.

He was the first governor to meet with Latino leaders last year and sign up to push House Republicans to bring immigration reform legislation to a vote, which they never did

He has shown respect that many in the immigrant community say is lacking in debates on immigration by using the term new Americans to refer to immigrants, whether here legally or not. He also established a state council to focus on integrating immigrants.

He opposed White House proposals to return young Central American children and families who crossed the U.S-Mexico border last summer, saying they would face "certain death."

On deportations - an issue that still vexes the current administration - O'Malley stopped Baltimore's City Detention Center from holding immigrants without criminal records for deportation by the federal government. Malley's office also has hired former lobbyist and former Obama Hispanic media director of political engagement, Gabriela Domenzain, according to Buzzfeed.

"He was very helpful on the immigration question in Maryland and certainly is someone we think of as a friend and more progressive on immigration matters," said Brent Wilkes, executive director of League of United Latin American Citizens.

But Wilkes added that he didn't think his entrance and record would hurt Clinton "because of the aggressive effort" she's made on immigration in her campaign.

In response to questions from immigration activists on unaccompanied children who arrived at the U.S. border last year, Clinton said the children should be sent back, essentially supporting the Obama administration's stand on the influx.

But she has since said mothers and children should not be held in immigration detention. She has hired an immigrant who lived in the U.S. illegally and became active on immigration reform politics, Lorella Praeli, as part of her campaign staff. Praeli is now a legal resident.

She has said she would expand on Obama's immigration executive action programs to shield the parents of young immigrants illegally in the country from deportation as well.

"I will fight to stop partisan attacks on the executive actions that would put Dreamers . . . at risk of deportation," she said at a roundtable in Nevada, according to The Associated Press. "If Congress refuses to act, as president I will do everything possible under the law to go even further."

The high profile and details their campaigns are giving - and will give - to the immigration issue hasn't always been the case in presidential campaigns. But the topic has moved more and more to center stage with the help of young immigrants who call themselves Dreamers. They have regularly pressed politicians and the sitting administration to address the effect of U.S. immigration policies on their lives and their families' lives.

Although there are certainly other issues of interest to Latino voters, immigration has been something of a mobilizer. In 2012, 54 percent of Latino voters were naturalized or had at least one immigrant parent.

Also in the Democratic field, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont, has backed immigration reform. But he withheld support for last year's sweeping Senate immigration bill until fixes were made to a guest worker provision that he thought would allow for the hiring of cheap labor in place of U.S. workers. He has supported Obama's executive action programs.

Republican candidates have worked to engage the Latino community, with Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, doing a National Press Club interview with Javier Palomarez, U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce president last month and expected candidate Jeb Bush making appearances in Puerto Rico and before the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference's convention in Houston. O'Malley is scheduled for an appearance with Palomarez on Wednesday.

While GOP presidential hopefuls are largely opposed to Obama's executive action, regarding it as overreach, they too have been discussing immigration on the trail.

Latinos were about 10 percent of the electorate in 2012. According to Pew Research Center, Obama received 71 percent of Hispanic votes, the highest of any president since former President Bill Clinton won 72 percent of the Latino vote in 1996.