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McCain’s Immigration Two-Step

The Republican candidate performs a difficult dance for the National Council of La Raza.

By 7.15.08

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John McCain set a difficult task for himself in his speech to the National Council of La Raza. He had to simultaneously reassure liberal Hispanic activists that he is a more reliable champion of comprehensive immigration reform -- otherwise known as amnesty -- than Barack Obama and convince conservatives that he is still committed to the enforcement-first position he took in the Republican primaries. All while denying that he has flip-flopped on immigration.

In substance, his immigration remarks offered something for everyone. He explained his revised position. "Many Americans did not believe us when we said we would secure our borders, and so we failed in our efforts," McCain said of his defeated immigration legislation. "I don't want to fail again... We must prove we have the resources to secure our borders and use them, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States."

McCain also reiterated his support for legalizing illegal immigrants. He described his work on McCain-Kennedy as "doing the right thing," for which he deserved no special credit. "But I do ask for your trust that when I say I remain committed to fair, practical and comprehensive immigration reform, I mean it," the presumptive Republican nominee deckared. "I think I have earned that trust."

The Arizona senator's conservative critics don't trust him to secure the borders. And a surprisingly heated La Raza question-and-answer session revealed that McCain wasn't given lasting credit for his amnesty advocacy. One questioner challenged him to commit to a single immigration bill as Obama had in his speech to the group. "It is my top priority today and it will be my top priority tomorrow," McCain vowed.

Some people in the La Raza audience seemed to reject the idea that there should be any immigration enforcement at all. "When your forefathers came, there was no illegal-legal. Everyone was welcome at Ellis Island," one man insisted to McCain. The candidate shot back, "The United States has to have secure borders sir, and that's necessary, even if you disagree."

WHY IS THERE such controversy surrounding McCain's position, given that he has compiled an immigration voting record as consistent as Tom Tancredo's but in the opposite direction? Because McCain has had trouble staying on message since embracing enforcement-first during the primaries, using different rhetoric for different audiences.

"I got the message," McCain promised on the campaign trail in South Carolina. "We will secure the border first." Byron York quoted him as saying in Iowa, "The lesson is people want the border secure. They want the border secure. I got the message. The border has to be secure. And we have to do what's necessary to secure our border, and then we can move on to other aspects of the problem."

Even when speaking to groups like the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, the League of United Latin American Citizens, and La Raza, there is usually some enforcement-first language in his prepared text. But when he answers questions from the audience, he tiptoes back toward his previous position. Speaking to the first group, he seemed to suggest that McCain-Kennedy-style legislation would be a "top priority" in his first 100 days. He also told the Las Vegas Sun, "I haven't won on every issue. I didn't win on immigration reform, but I'll go back at it. And I'm glad I did it."

In a closed-door meeting of Chicago Hispanic leaders, McCain again promised to promote a guest-worker program and other aspects of his failed immigration legislation if elected president. Unfortunately for him, Illinois Minuteman leader Rosanna Pulido was one of the Hispanics present. She told the Associated Press, "He's one John McCain in front of white Republicans. And he's a different John McCain in front of Hispanics... I'm outraged that he would reach out to me as a Hispanic but not as a conservative."

Asked in a January Republican debate whether he would support his own immigration legislation if it came up again for a vote in the Senate, McCain answered, "No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today. The people want the border secured first." But he was more equivocal in a radio interview before the Florida primary, where there is a large Hispanic vote, when asked if he would sign McCain-Kennedy into law if it showed up on his desk in the Oval Office: "Yeah. But look... It isn't going to come."

McCAIN STILL SOUNDED bullish about his immigration collaboration with Ted Kennedy during his La Raza speech, as he tried to position himself to the left of Obama. "At a moment of great difficulty in my campaign, when my critics said it would be political suicide for me to do so, I helped author with Senator Kennedy comprehensive immigration reform, and fought for its passage," he said yesterday. "I cast a lot of hard votes... I took my lumps for it without complaint. My campaign was written off as a lost cause."

Obama, McCain continued, "declined to cast some of those tough votes. He voted for and even sponsored amendments that were intended to kill the legislation, amendments that Senator Kennedy and I voted against." But some of Obama's votes, such as sunsetting the move to a merit-based immigration point system after five years, were opposed by business interests rather than groups like La Raza, which prioritize family reunification instead.

That's why McCain is in such a tough spot on immigration. Restrictionist conservatives find it hard to believe that the John McCain who gave them McCain-Kennedy, Juan Hernandez, and only a grudging concession to "build the goddamned fence" at the border is really giving them straight talk now. Yet when it comes to wooing Hispanic voters, McCain finds himself in a bidding war with the Democrats that will take a lot more than "comprehensive reform" to win.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.