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Has McCain Flip-Flopped on Immigration?

The Republican nominee will have to defend himself against unfair accusations if he doesn't want to lose Hispanic support.

by
Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Bio

June 25, 2008 - 12:41 am

The McCain campaign is blasting away at Barack Obama for reversing his position on whether he would accept public financing of his presidential campaign.

It’s a fair criticism. Obama made a John Kerry-like flip-flop but did so more skillfully than Kerry ever managed.

Yet McCain should tread carefully when it comes to being consistent. After all, there are those who believe that he himself has flip-flopped – and on a signature issue: immigration reform. McCain was once considered one of the strongest proponents in Congress for comprehensive immigration reform, a position for which he got a lot of grief from small-minded conservatives in his own party who inaccurately and unfairly labeled “amnesty” his plan to give illegal immigrants a path to legalization.

But then McCain ran for president and, in what appeared to be a sop to hardliners, backtracked from his support for comprehensive immigration reform. These days, McCain is just as likely to talk about how he got the message that the United States has to secure the border before deciding what to do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here.

To a lot of people, that sounds like the discredited approach of enforcement only — which has a track record of only making the problem worse. Note the 1996 Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act (IRAIRA), an enforcement-only law which – for all its chest thumping – did little to curb illegal immigration.

Making matters even more confusing, it’s a different story when McCain happens to be speaking to a Hispanic group like the one he met with last week in Chicago. According to people who were at that meeting, McCain promised those folks he would restart the push for comprehensive reform if elected president.

So, which is it? When it comes to immigration, does McCain support enforcement-only or comprehensive reform?

I may be the only person in the country who doesn’t see a contradiction here. It could be that McCain isn’t really talking about enforcement-only but “enforcement first” – as part of comprehensive reform. That is, you wind up with one bill that secures the borders and then, when that’s done, allows for some form of legalization for some of the undocumented.

In fact, McCain has already sponsored such a bill. The second coming of McCain-Kennedy, as amended in 2007, allowed for a series of enforcement “triggers” – goals that had to be met before any kind of legalization could take place. What is that, if not “enforcement first” on the way to comprehensive reform?

If that is what McCain supports – and I have a hunch it is – then he needs to say so loud and clear. He will have the opportunity to do so next month in San Diego when he addresses the annual meeting of the National Council of La Raza. Before that group, he needs to say unequivocally what he would do as president to fix the immigration system, and in what order he would do it. Then he has to stand by it.

The hour is getting late. Democrats are concerned enough about McCain’s acumen in attracting Hispanic support – and Obama’s shortcoming in that arena – that they’re busy advancing this line that McCain has flip-flopped on immigration in the hopes that Hispanics will make him persona non grata.

For what it’s worth, I think that’s a lie. And shame on those who are spreading it because they have a weak hand. But it’s up to McCain to defend himself against that accusation. And, if he doesn’t because he’s afraid that expressing his true feelings will weaken support within his own party, then shame on him.

Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union Tribune, a nationally syndicated columnist, a frequent lecturer, and a regular contributor to CNN.com.
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