Looking Past McCain on Immigration

Scott Wong, Politico, Aug. 26, 2010

Few expect John McCain to pick up the torch again for immigration reform, especially since the Arizona senator took such a hard right turn on the issue to beat back a conservative primary challenge from J.D. Hayworth this week.

But Hispanic- and immigration-rights activists say McCain isn’t the only senator who could serve as the Republican standard-bearer for immigration reform.

For one, they haven’t given up on Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who endorsed a reform plan this year but recently caused a national uproar after saying the children of illegal immigrants should not receive birthright citizenship under the Constitution.

Activists also are continuing to court Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who replaced the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the liberal stalwart who had partnered with McCain on a failed 2007 reform package that included a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S.

And they say Florida’s three-way Senate contest between Republican Marco Rubio, Democrat Rep. Kendrick Meek and Republican-turned-independent Gov. Charlie Crist could produce a credible voice and champion for immigration issues.

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But by McCain’s 2008 presidential bid, the “maverick” had abandoned any talk of comprehensive reform, instead saying the federal government needed to first secure the border.

He returned to that message again this year–endorsing Arizona’s tough new immigration law and urging Washington to “complete the danged fence”–as he fended off a challenge from immigration hawk Hayworth, a former congressman and conservative talk radio host.

The strategy worked. McCain routed Hayworth by a 25 percent margin, setting up a contest with little-known Democrat Rodney Glassman, a former Tucson City Council member, in November’s general election.

McCain has shown no sign of backing away from his hard-line stance on immigration, even after dispatching Hayworth. “We will secure our borders,” McCain said at his victory speech in Phoenix Tuesday night.

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“One thing that has become clear about John McCain is he will say and do everything he needs to do to stay in the good graces of voters,” said Fernand Amandi, vice president of Bendixen & Associates, a Florida-based Latino polling and communications firm. {snip}

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While many believe McCain is a lost cause on reform, GOP strategist Ana Navarro hasn’t written off one of the senator’s closest allies, Graham, who rolled out a reform proposal with Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) in March that included a path to citizenship for the nation’s estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

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Maine’s two Republican senators–Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins–remain possibilities as well, though Conda highlighted a political reality: “The universe for supporters of immigration reform is pretty small.”

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Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said he expects Republicans–even McCain–to soften their stances on immigration as the November general election approaches.

“We are open to additional conversations with adults in the Republican Party who want to find an immigration solution,” Noorani said. “The [political] environment and their positions will continue to change over the next four to six months because all of these candidates are looking at a completely different voting population than they were yesterday.”

That may be most apparent in the Senate race in Florida, where Latinos comprise about 13 percent of voters, according to a recent study by America’s Voice. More than 1.2 million Latinos cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election, an 80 percent increase from the 2000 election.

Meek, a four-term Democratic congressman, has been a staunch supporter of comprehensive immigration reform. Crist, the former Republican running as an independent, backs a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, saying it will keep Social Security solvent.

Meanwhile, Rubio, the Cuban-American tea party darling, is harder to read on immigration. He’s said he had concerns about Arizona’s hard-line immigration law and does not support changes to the 14th Amendment, but he opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants.

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