Has McCain Flip-Flopped on Immigration?

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?