Oliver Merino, 25, expressed his concerns about immigration Saturday following Hillary Rodham Clinton’s speech at a rally in Charlotte, N.C. Credit Chris Keane/Reuters
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Hillary Rodham Clinton had just finished telling the crowd that North Carolina families could count on Senator Kay Hagan when the chants of Oliver Merino — a 25-year-old whose mother, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, faces deportation — grew louder.
He held a sign that read, “Hillary, do you stand with our immigrant families?” and shouted that his mother lives in constant fear of deportation. “I have to say that I understand immigration is an important issue, and we appreciate that,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We thank you for your advocacy.”
President Obama has promised executive action on immigration change after the midterm elections. But immigration activists have already turned their focus — and their frustration — to his potential successor.
The incident at a rally here on Saturday was only the latest time members of a group of young, undocumented immigrants who call themselves Dreamers have aggressively confronted Mrs. Clinton.
Behind the public confrontations is a quieter but concerted effort by a critical bloc of young Latinos to urge others like them not to automatically support Mrs. Clinton in an increasingly likely 2016 presidential campaign.
“If you’re going to pick politics over our families, you should know that you can’t take this constituency for granted,” said Cristina Jimenez, managing director of United We Dream, the largest national network of young undocumented immigrants.
The targeting of Mrs. Clinton comes amid growing disillusionment about Mr. Obama’s failure to enact immigration change and his handling of the arrival of thousands of Central American children on the United States border. The four members of the Dream Organizing Network who attended the rally here on Saturday urged Mrs. Clinton to support executive action to stop deportations.
By mobilizing against Mrs. Clinton two years before the next presidential election, the self-named Dreamers hope to pressure her to commit to immigration change or risk losing critical Latino votes.
Mrs. Clinton had overwhelming support among Hispanics in the 2008 Democratic primaries; in the 16 Super Tuesday contests that year, 63 percent of Latinos voted for Mrs. Clinton, compared with 35 percent for Mr. Obama. But in the past six years, the immigration issue has become a flash point among the 25.2 million Latinos who are eligible to vote in the 2014 midterm elections.
“Immigration is not the only issue, but it is the defining issue, and she will need to learn that the old lines and old dynamics no longer apply,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigration group.
Mrs. Clinton has drawn criticism from some Latinos by campaigning for Democrats like Ms. Hagan, who was one of five Senate Democrats to vote against the Dream Act that would have given undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children a path to legal status.
This month, Mrs. Clinton headlined a rally in Kentucky for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Senate candidate, shortly after her campaign released a TV ad criticizing her Republican opponent, Senator Mitch McConnell, for voting to grant “amnesty and taxpayer-funded benefits to three million illegal aliens.”
Mrs. Clinton has said she supports the Dream Act and comprehensive immigration change.
“I think it’s important to provide opportunities for young people, many of them brought here as babies or young children who have imbued the American dream in their genes,” Mrs. Clinton said at an event in April at the University of Connecticut.
“She strikes a chord within the Latino community,” said Representative Joaquin Castro, a Democrat from Texas who has already endorsed the “super PAC” Ready for Hillary.
“There is a sense that she cares deeply about the issues confronting the community, and she has spent time nurturing relationships within the Latino community,” Mr. Castro added.
When asked whether they would vote for Mrs. Clinton or the Republican nominee for president in 2016, regardless of who that is, 63 percent of Latinos ages 18 to 34 said they would vote for Mrs. Clinton, according to a poll conducted in September by Bendixen and Amandi International for Fusion, the fledgling network owned by ABC and Univision.
But how she handles the immigration issue could impact her popularity, said Matt A. Barreto, co-founder of the polling and research firm Latino Decisions.
In June, Mrs. Clinton told CNN that the Central American children “should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are,” a statement that made some young Latinos question her commitment to their communities.
Not long after that, Jorge Ramos of Fusion asked Mrs. Clinton if she had a “Latino problem.” Mrs. Clinton replied, “I hope not!” and then said only those children who do not have a legitimate claim for asylum or a family connection in the United States should be sent back.
Her initial comments struck some immigration activists as even more hard-line than the statements out of Mr. Obama’s White House.
“She was a lawyer who represented children,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, a Chicago-based immigration lawyer who referred to Mrs. Clinton’s work with the Children’s Defense Fund. “The last position we’d think she would take would be curtailing due process for children.”
In September, after a campaign rally in Indianola, Iowa, Monica Reyes introduced herself as a Dreamer and asked Mrs. Clinton about Mr. Obama’s delay on immigration change. Mrs. Clinton eventually told the young activists, “You know, I think we have to elect more Democrats.”
The exchange, posted on YouTube, made some Latinos believe Mrs. Clinton may take their support for granted. Frustration with Mr. Obama, a record number of deportations over the past six years and stalled immigration change have made Latinos less devoutly Democrat than they have been in the past, according to recent polls.
“I don’t think she had any idea of how that response was perceived by a young Dreamer who is thinking, ‘Um, we’ve elected a lot of Democrats,’ ” Mr. Sharry said of Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Merino, the protester who continued his chants until security personnel escorted him out of the Charlotte Convention Center, said he wanted to see Mrs. Clinton encourage Mr. Obama to take executive action to end deportations. “For Hagan and for Hillary Clinton to say they support families, but at the same time they want to deport my mother, I think that is a contradiction that needs to be raised,” Mr. Merino said in an interview after the rally.
The activists have also confronted Mr. Obama and potential 2016 presidential candidates on the Republican side, including Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Cuban-American.
For some of them, Mrs. Clinton is only marginally more aligned with them on this issue than Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida whose wife is Mexican, who both enjoy support among Hispanics.
In January, Mr. Christie signed into law a bill that allowed undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition. And conservatives have criticized Mr. Bush for saying that coming to the United States illegally is “not a felony. It’s an act of love.”
Many immigration activists said it was Mrs. Clinton’s husband’s actions that led to the formation of the Dreamers movement. In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed into law the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act, which created new barriers for undocumented immigrants to gain legal status or return after deportation.
“There were no Dreamers before 1996 because there was a way for people with long-term status to obtain citizenship,” Ms. Ruiz-Velasco said.
While Mrs. Clinton cannot be held responsible for legislation her husband enacted, given the importance of the Latino vote and the sensitivity about immigration, activists said she would probably have to address the 1996 bill.
“She has to declare independence from both the Obama administration’s track record and her own husband’s track record,” said Jose Antonio Vargas, an undocumented Filipino immigrant and founder of Define American, an immigration activist group.
Cesar Vargas, a co-director of the Dream Action Coalition who along with Ms. Reyes yelled out to Mrs. Clinton in Iowa, said the group would continue to try to get answers about her specific positions.
“We are going to make sure we are ready to question Hillary Clinton and not be completely blinded by a candidate’s celebrity,” Mr. Vargas said. “Immigrant communities are not ‘Ready for Hillary.’ ”