John McCain and the Undocumented Express
The Republican nominee recovers his pro-immigrant credentials, but has his visa to the Latino electorate expired?
By Kirk Nielsen
Reporter: “Senator McCain, there’s close to 14 million estimated undocumented workers in this country. I know you’re not for amnesty but what do you plan to do for those undocumented workers?”
John McCain: “First of all we have to secure our borders. Our borders must be secured, that is our first obligation. Americans have lost confidence in our government, and trust. So we have to secure the borders.”
That exchange occurred at a Miami news conference January 21, a week before the Florida primary. McCain also said it was imperative to fully prosecute employers of undocumented immigrants, and to deport the 2 million illegals who’ve committed crimes. “But first we’ve got to secure the borders, and that’s the message.”
It was a far cry from the compassionate, immigrant-friendly chords he struck less than a year earlier. Nonetheless, on the night of McCain’s January 29 Florida primary win, when the senator from Arizona clinched the Republican nomination, Jose Lagos was ebullient. It didn’t bother Lagos, the president of the immigrant advocacy group Honduran Unity, that the Straight Talk Express wasn’t talking about helping undocumented immigrants obtain legal status anymore. “Right now what people want to hear is ‘border security,” Lagos said. “You can’t say everything that everybody wants to hear and get elected.”
Lagos was certain, though, that McCain still supported pro-immigrant reforms, like mass legalization and the opportunity of citizenship for millions of undocumented residents. The candidate just stopped saying so publicly. “Sen. McCain is like the Phoenix bird,” Lagos said excitedly, proclaiming that the Republican Party was now poised to keep immigration reform alive.
It was plausible—as long as McCain returned to his former self. In May 2006, 21 Republicans joined 41 Democrats in the U.S. Senate to pass the comprehensive immigration reform McCain authored with Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy. The bill aimed to bolster border control and enforcement against companies that hire undocumented immigrants. It also would have established a process for the estimated 12 to 14 million undocumented workers already here to become citizens. The legislation died, however, when Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, the GOP majority leader at the time, refused to take up the bill in the House.
Democrats gained control of Congress in the 2006 elections but by June 2007, with presidential primary campaigning in motion and xenophobia swirling in some states, legalization proponents could no longer rally a majority of the senate behind the McCain-Kennedy bill. Attempts at compromise failed. In the last vote on the matter only 46 senators (12 Republicans and 34 Democrats) supported comprehensive immigration reform; 53 (40 Republicans and 13 Democrats) opposed it. Mitt Romney and other GOP presidential contenders seized the moment to criticize McCain as being too soft on illegal immigration.
In July of 2007, while the McCain campaign was reeling from financial mismanagement, most of his GOP opponents continued to send out anti-immigrant messages, alienating large numbers prospective Hispanic voters. Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, for example, denounced legislation that allowed immigrants to receive Medicaid and State Children’s Health Insurance Program services without having to provide proof of U.S. citizenship. “Again, the Democrats have proven their loyalty to illegal aliens over American citizens,” Tancredo asserted in a press release. “Rather than help middle class families as they promised, Congressional Democrats are squeezing tax dollars out of Americans in order to benefit those who have violated our laws.... This socialistic plan only encourages more illegal immigration.
When will these out-of-touch Democrats realize that Americans do not want to subsidize illegal aliens?” When McCain re-emerged in the fall of 2007, he, too, had forsaken the more humanitarian reforms of his own bill. Arguably, his new secure-the-border-and-deport criminal-aliens stance helped him win the GOP nomination.
A general election campaign is a different ball game, however, especially when opinion polls indicate that two out of three Latino voters prefer your opponent—and your opponent’s immigrant-friendly positions, which used to be your own. Because record numbers of Latinos voted in this year’s presidential primaries and more have registered since then, they could hold the key to victory in certain battleground states like Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida. So there was plenty of incentive for McCain to rediscover his kinder, gentler side on immigration.
But first, the Republican Party’s 109-member platform committee—which hammers out official GOP policies to be adopted at its convention—had to work through proposals to make life even harsher for illegal immigrants. One called for the party to oppose automatic U.S. citizenship for children born of “illegal aliens.” (Under the Constitution, anyone born in the United States is a U.S. citizen.)
“That proposal was voted down and I was encouraged by the debate, by those that recognized that certainly to target or identify children in the immigration debate was inappropriate,” says Marcelo Llorente, a Florida state legislator from the Miami area who was a McCain delegate.
“And on top of that there are 14th Amendment protections to all persons born on this great land.”
The committee also quashed a motion to exclude undocumented immigrants from the U.S. Census count. Opponents argued that because government funding for education, health care, and other social services is apportioned on the basis of population, it would hurt states and municipalities to have inaccurate counts.
In its final form, the Republican platform emphasizes “enforcing the rule of law at the border” and throughout the nation. “We oppose amnesty,” it states. “The rule of law suffers if government policies encourage or reward illegal activity. The American people’s rejection of en masse legalizations is especially appropriate given the federal government’s past failures to enforce the law.” It also states that authorities should also arrest “those who overstay their visas, rather than letting millions flout the generosity that gave them temporary entry.”
The Democratic Party platform is equally vociferous on immigration law enforcement, but more lenient with regard to the undocumented. “For the millions living here illegally but otherwise playing by the rules, we must require them to come out of the shadows and get right with the law,” it says. “We support a system that requires undocumented immigrants who are in good standing to pay a fine, pay taxes, learn English, and go to the back of the line for the opportunity to become citizens. They are our neighbors, and we can help them become full tax paying, law-abiding, productive members of society.”
“He’s got to make a calculation, really, between now and the election about what it’ll take to win,” Republican Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania said as he headed to hear McCain’s speech at the Republican National Convention. “His original bill, McCain-Kennedy, had a comprehensive plan, which was very appealing to Hispanics,” Specter continued. “And there is very strong Republican concern about anything beyond border security. So that’s his challenge.”
In his speech, McCain’s only reference to immigration was this: “We believe everyone has something to contribute and deserves the opportunity to reach their God-given potential, from the boy whose descendants arrived on the Mayflower to the Latina daughter of migrant workers. We’re all God’s children and we’re all Americans.” But it was clear his immigration recalculation had begun. It became more discernible when Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos forced the issue in an interview three days later.
“I’ll enact comprehensive immigration reform. We’ll sit down together with Democrats, and we’ll get it done,” McCain told Ramos. “But we’ve got to secure our borders, not only because of illegal immigration, but because of drugs.”
“Would that include massive legalization of millions of undocumented immigrants in this country?” Ramos asked.
“I think it means that we go through a step-by-step process of allowing people to apply and achieve citizenship in this country, of course,” McCain replied. When Ramos pointed out McCain had just contradicted his own party’s platform, the candidate pressed on, saying authorities need to deport or jail 2 million criminal aliens, then joked that there aren’t enough handcuffs in the country for the other 12 million undocumented. “We can, together, Republican and Democrat, work out this issue, provide a path to citizenship.”
For some Latino Republicans, it’s like his primary season regression never happened. “Sen. McCain has always been supportive of a comprehensive immigration policy, which includes a guest worker program,” says George Antuna, a member of McCain’s Hispanic outreach committee for Texas. “He’s been working at it for the past several years, so he’s been extremely vocal.” Antuna, whose mother and father migrated from Mexico in the 1960s, added: “I really do think that we’re going to do extremely well with the Latino vote. Why? Because of the mere fact that Sen. McCain understands immigrants and their issues, because of the fact that he’s from a border state. He understands immigration; he lives it every single day.”
Antuna offers a hint of his approach for convincing Hispanic voters. “Just like we can’t do drilling without doing some kind of conservation, you need to have a good guest worker program, but it has to be tied into a border security program... We should make sure we have a pathway to residency, which leads to a pathway to citizenship. And it’s not going to happen overnight. You’ve got to earn it, man.”
Other McCain backers, however, are still opting for the candidate’s borders-first-deport-criminals message. “The platform that John McCain is running on is that we have an obligation first to secure the borders,” insists Hugh Hallman, the mayor of Tempe, Arizona, a McCain delegate. “Once we do that, we need to calm the political rhetoric down and begin looking at how to address those people who already are in the country and how to create appropriate labor policies so that people can come to this country and work. But those are the second and third steps, not the first step.”
Hallman hastens to warn that Latino voters in Arizona and other states don’t necessarily support pro-legalization and that many are “ardently anti-immigrant.” Despite opinion polls, he says it’s a false premise to assume McCain would gain Latino voter support by becoming more sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants.
Immigration is far from the only concern on the minds of Latinos. “Taxation is a big issue. The more money you can leave in your household the better,” Antuna says, noting that his mother, who runs a small tailoring business, used to be a Democrat. “One day my mom asked her friends, ‘What’s the difference between a Democrat and a Republican?’ And her Hispanic friend says, ‘Well, the Democrats are for the poor, and the Republicans are for the rich.’ And she said, ‘Well you know what? I don’t want to be poor. I want to be rich.’ ”
But with unemployment, the high cost of health care and college, and other economic troubles topping the list of Latino voter concerns, casting himself as the leader of the rich people’s party is a calculation John McCain probably won’t want to make this fall.
In the race for Latino votes, it’s also Peña versus Navarro
The presidential contenders’ lists of Hispanic political advisors expanded to unprecedented proportions this year, along with the Latino electorate’s potential to tip the race in several battleground states. With apologies up front, we have space to recognize only two of the top dogs.
John McCain’s presidential campaign had dozens of chairs and co-chairs on its National Hispanic Advisory Board even before the senator from Arizona won the Republican nomination. But 36-year-old Ana Navarro, McCain’s senior Hispanic policy advisor, is the one involved in virtually every discussion related to winning the hearts and minds of Latino voters.
Navarro was practicing immigration law in Miami when she joined Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s transition team in 1998. Primed with GOP connections, she then launched a Miami-based political consulting firm. Notable clients included the government of El Salvador and Republican congressmen from Miami, brothers Lincoln and Mario Diaz-Balart, who are among McCain’s core advisors, especially on Cuba issues.
Navarro, a Nicaraguan American whose father was an anti-Sandinista Contra guerrilla in the ‘80s, first met McCain at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables, where the senator often stops while on official visits to Southcom, Guantánamo, and other points south.
“When I speak to John about issues important to the Hispanic community, it is much more of a dialogue than it is an advising session. I frankly think he can advise me more than I can [him],” Navarro says, noting that McCain has 25 years of experience with the Latino electorate and has repeatedly won a sizeable majority of it in Arizona.
Democratic nominee Barack Obama’s inner circle of advisors on all things Latino numbers 15. At the center is 61-year-old Federico Peña, who became Denver’s first Hispanic mayor in the 1980s and served as U.S. transportation secretary and energy secretary in the Clinton Administration before joining a Denver-based private equity investment firm.
Peña has served as national co-chair of the Obama campaign since mid-2007, and he advises the senator from Illinois on much besides Latino issues, particularly energy policy, transportation, infrastructure, and political strategy. “I’ve got a multifaceted background with lots of different kinds of experiences, which Barack utilizes fully,” Peña says.
As chair of Obama’s national Hispanic Advisory Council, Peña presides over a weekly conference call connecting the group with campaign manager David Plouffe. “Their role is two-fold,” Peña says of the council. “One, to be briefed on a weekly basis on campaign strategy and how the campaign is going. And secondly, it’s to give them an opportunity to give the campaign manager and the top campaign officials feedback, on things we ought to be doing differently, new strategies, things that are perhaps not working, things that might be working better in certain states. So it’s a two-way conversation."