Jane Sanders, the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), said Sunday that opponents are distorting the facts when they say her husband came late to the issue of immigration.
"That's not true," she said in a phone interview from Phoenix. "Everything that Congress has been involved in, he's been on the right side of the issue. And immigrants are dealing with the same kinds of economic difficulties that everybody has been dealing with."
She traveled to Arizona on Friday ahead of its March 22 Democratic primary, and on Monday plans to meet with undocumented families and visit the infamous tent city jail run by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is ardently against unauthorized immigrants and has endorsed GOP front-runner Donald Trump.
Immigration has become central to the 2016 primaries, both on the right, as Republicans fight over who will crack down hardest on the undocumented population, and on the left, where Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are battling over who is more pro-immigrant.
The issue is especially important in Arizona, where polling has put Clinton in the lead. Latino voters make up nearly 22 percent of the electorate in Arizona -- more than in any state but New Mexico, Texas and California.
Clinton and her supporters have argued that she is a longtime advocate for undocumented immigrants and that Sanders largely stayed out of the issue or even impeded progress -- including by voting against a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007. He later voted for reform in 2013 and includes it as part of his platform.
"I think the criticism from the other side has been consistently distorted on every issue," Jane Sanders said. "If I were to answer every time that they said 'Bernie wasn't there,' we would be spending all our time doing that."
She pointed out that Clinton said in 2014 that children coming to the U.S. from Central America "should be sent back" while Sanders was advocating for them to stay. (Clinton argues she was only saying asylum law should be followed.) Both candidates promised at a debate on Wednesday that they would not deport children or undocumented immigrants who were not criminals or security threats.
Along with meetings related to immigration, Jane Sanders planned to visit Oak Flat -- Apache land that her husband is aiming to protect from mining interests -- later Sunday. On Saturday, she visited Native Americans on the Hopi Reservation and the Navajo Nation. She said she spoke with them about problems with access to health care, grocery stores and education.
Sanders said she expects the campaign will do well in Arizona generally and with Latino and Native American voters, who she said were very interested "in hearing about real solutions."
"They take their responsibility as citizens very, very seriously," she said. "And we really respect that, and are pleased that we had the opportunity to meet with various groups and actually have real discussions about how to improve the quality of life for the average person, instead of focusing on just the top one percent."