Back in 2009, when Democratic New York Gov. David Patterson appointed her to Hillary Clinton’s vacant Senate seat, it was Kirsten Gillibrand’s conservative immigration stance that made her appointment controversial on the Left.
But these days, as her party drifts away from the center and Gillibrand mulls a presidential bid, the senator is joining (or leading?) the far-left flank in calling for ICE to be “reimagine[d].”
Gillibrand’s steady march leftward is no secret in Washington, and her path follows a certain logic— as a congresswoman, she represented a rural upstate district; as a senator, she represents every corner of the Empire State, including that deep blue metropolis on the southern coast. But for the severity of its tack, that path is striking, and her movement on immigration continues to look especially opportunistic.
In a January 2009 article headlined “Gillibrand’s Immigration Views Draw Fire,” the New York Times wrote about the controversy surrounding her appointment to Clinton’s seat. As a House member, the Times reported, Gillibrand “opposed any sort of amnesty for illegal immigrants, supported deputizing local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws, spoke out against Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s proposal to allow illegal immigrants to have driver’s licenses and sought to make English the official language of the United States.”
After Patterson appointed Gillibrand to the upper chamber, Peter Rivera, the senior Hispanic in the state legislature at the time, decried her “hard-line stand on immigration, which borders on xenophobia” in a biting statement. “I find no compelling reason for the Governor to select a conservative Democrat to carry on the progressive work of now Secretary of State Clinton,” he said.
Fast forward less than a decade, and Gillibrand is now one of the prominent progressives calling for ICE to be abolished, right alongside the democratic socialist nominated for a House seat downstate.
Chasing the base is a normal part of primary season (see Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.). And politicians should be allowed to change their minds. But Gillibrand’s new stance on ICE underscores how dramatic her shift on immigration has been, and how closely it’s mirrored the very radical shifts in her party in terms of timing and content. If the senator runs in 2020, proving those changes of heart have been sincere, rather than opportunistic, will be an uphill battle.