January 24, 2013
By Manu Rajo and Kate Nocera
To understand the GOP’s complicated history with immigration reform, look no further than Sen. John McCain.
The Arizona Republican has spent his last two elections distancing himself from an immigration deal he reached with liberal icon Ted Kennedy in 2007. He was pushed to the right in 2008 by Mitt Romney and then again in his 2010 Senate primary, positioning himself as a fierce border security hawk and outspoken advocate for the state’s sweeping anti-immigration law.
He even enlisted local immigration hard-liners like Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu to make the case. “Senator, you’re one of us,” Babeu said to McCain in a campaign ad about building a fence along the Mexican border.
But after Latino voters ditched Romney and the Republican Party at the polls in November, and with President Barack Obama and Democrats pushing immigration reform, McCain is one of a bipartisan group of eight senators talking behind closed doors on an immigration deal that could give the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants more leeway than many conservative hard-liners are ready to accept.
If the coalition holds, McCain could emerge as a chief ally to Obama, a stark reversal from the past four years, when McCain was a thorn in the administration’s side on a host of issues, including immigration and defense.
“I’ve been trying for a long time, and I think maybe now that the climate is such that we can be successful,” McCain told POLITICO.
After witnessing both Romney and McCain shed Latino support to Obama in the past two presidential elections, Republicans are growing increasingly fearful that they have mishandled the immigration issue. Resolve the issue now — and tone down the rhetoric — or forever suffer life in the minority, some in the party fear. And many border-state senators say the broken immigration system is causing serious problems back home, and the political climate suddenly is right for a bipartisan deal.
“I’ve always felt that comprehensive reform is the way to go, and I think I was right,” McCain said.
McCain has challenged the idea his 2007 deal with Kennedy was about amnesty for illegal immigrants — famously declaring in a 2008 presidential primary debate in New Hampshire: “Let me just say, I’ve never supported amnesty.”
And he says his work on a bipartisan bill now and the tough positions on border security in 2010 are not mutually exclusive. In that 2010 ad, McCain says, “Drug and human smuggling, home invasions, murder.” To, which Babeu responds, “We’re outmanned. Of all the illegals in America, more than half come through Arizona.”
The senator says he still stands by the sentiment.
“You go down to the border where people’s homes are being invaded, where drug smugglers are crossing property every night, they deserve the same security that you have where you work and they don’t,” McCain said in the interview. “And that’s why border security has to be a fundamental part of any agreement.”
That McCain can bounce back and forth on immigration is also reflective of local politics in the border state of Arizona, where illegal immigration remains a rampant problem. But after the state stoked an emotional national debate in 2010 when it passed a tough crackdown on illegal immigration, known as SB 1070, the author of that law lost a stunning recall election in 2011, a sign Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) says shows the changing attitudes back home.
“You have the author [state Sen. Russell Pearce], chief sponsor of SB 1070, lose in the most conservative district in the state,” said Flake, one of the eight members negotiating a compromise. “The tone of the debate has changed, and it’s easier, I think, to find a solution now.”
That’s what the group of eight senators are hoping to accomplish. They are looking to put together a broad proposal that would beef up border enforcement, overhaul the future flow of legal immigrants, put in place new programs for seasonal workers and determine how to bring the nation’s 11 million illegal immigrants into the legal immigration system. Whether to provide a direct pathway to citizenship for the nation’s illegal immigrants or instead allow them to stay in the country legally through other means remains a sticking point in the talks.
Senators in the group say they are making serious progress towards “principles” that would serve as the basis of their legislation — and they credit McCain for playing a central role in that effort.
“He’s being very, very constructive,” Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said of McCain. “Very positive. And I’m very optimistic, particularly because he’s come at this in some of the most positive ways I’ve seen in a long time.”
Even the possibility Obama could benefit hasn’t been an issue, said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is part of the group of eight. “I think there are long-term interests, but not long-term enemies in this business,” said Durbin, who praised McCain as well.
But if McCain sides with the group of eight on a comprehensive deal, it could put several of his GOP colleagues who also took a tougher line on immigration in a tricky spot — particularly those up for reelection next year.
“Generally speaking, I think we do better when we do step by step and I think piece by piece,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is up in 2014. “I think one of the reasons why we failed in 2007 is that we bit too much off. My first preference is to start on the things we agree on.”
Added Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a chief opponent of the 2007 deal: “I had said that after the ’86 deal, we shouldn’t award citizenship anymore to people who came here illegally. We set up a new system where we helped provide amnesty for millions over here, so in the future we just can’t continue to do that.”
And if McCain agrees to a deal allowing illegal immigrants to access the legal immigration system, he is bound to hear intense criticism from the right back home.
“It is wrong: it is wrong on the law; it is wrong economically; and it is wrong in principle,” said former Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who lost to McCain in the 2010 Senate primary. “And this kind of action being pursued for whatever reasons — if there are those who believe it will buy the Republican Party political favors, they are sorely mistaken.”
Flake acknowledged the political balancing act for the two men of getting an immigration bill done that appeals to conservatives in their home state.
“It’s difficult in Arizona, obviously being a border state, but he has consistently pushed for it and continues to and that’s good,” Flake said.
Wes Gullett, a former Arizona campaign aide for the senator, said immigration has always been an “evolving” issue in the state.
“So you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” Gullett said. “If you try and fix it, try to work on it, and you try to work on it in a bipartisan fashion, you’re going to be attacked from the right. If you don’t do anything, you’re going to be attacked from the right.”