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McCain on Immigration: Then and Now

McCain used to say: “I don’t believe there is another issue that is more important to our Nation than immigration reform…We can no longer afford to delay reform.”
 
 
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In the opening scene from “ The Senator’s Bargain,” by filmmakers Shari Robertson and Michael Camerini and recently aired on HBO, Senator John McCain, at a dinner for the National Immigration Forum, is movingly reading from a newspaper article on what happens to the body of immigrants who die from the unforgiving desert sun as they try to cross the border to follow their dream of a better life.  That was one reason why we need comprehensive immigration reform, he told the hushed audience.

Back in 2005, on the very day this scene took place, Senator McCain, working with Senator Edward Kennedy, introduced comprehensive immigration reform legislation that would have legalized millions of undocumented immigrants.  Introducing the bill on the Senate floor, McCain said,

“I don’t believe there is another issue that is more important to our Nation than immigration reform. For far too long, our Nation’s broken immigration laws have gone unreformed, leaving Americans vulnerable. We can no longer afford to delay reform.”

The McCain/Kennedy approach contrasted starkly with that of the House, which later that year passed the “Sensenbrenner bill” H.R. 4437, making illegal presence in the U.S. a crime.

That was five years ago.

Monday, the Arizona Senate passed legislation, previously passed in the House, that would make illegal presence in Arizona a crime, and gives local police the authority to investigate if they have “reasonable suspicion” that a person is in the country illegally.  Senator McCain said of the bill,

“I think it’s a very important step forward.”

As for immigration reform, apparently Senator McCain now thinks we can afford to delay.  Speaking on a local radio station Tuesday, McCain said,

“There’s no point of having immigration reform unless you can have the borders secure first.”

Also Tuesday, Senators McCain and Jon Kyl held a press conference to introduce a “Ten Point Border Security Action Plan.”  Mainly, the plan consists of throwing more money and more personnel at the southwest border.  Among other things, the plan calls for 3,000 National Guard troops and 3,000 more Border Patrol agents (in addition to the 20,000 already deployed).  It calls for full funding and support for Operation Streamline, an extremely wasteful effort to throw all migrants crossing the border illegally into jail at taxpayer expense instead of removing them from the country right away.  There is no room in the plan for real solutions to our broken immigration system.

The difference between five years ago and now is that Senator McCain is running for re-election and is facing a Republican primary challenge from former Representative and current immigration hardliner J.D. Hayworth, who was knocked from his House seat in 2006 when his anti-immigrant message apparently didn’t go over with enough of his border-district constituents. In the primary, however, hardliners are more influential, and Senator McCain’s immigration pronouncements today would be unrecognizable to someone listening to him five years ago.  In politics, leadership can sometimes be a liability.

The Arizona legislation would seem to give the green light for local enforcement agencies to engage in racial profiling, since it is not clear what will constitute “reasonable suspicion” that someone is in the country illegally.  Police might err on the side of incaution, since if they are not seen as sufficiently enforcing the law, private citizens will have the right to sue the police.  With the law’s constitutionally-questionable provisions, the many civil rights abuses that will undoubtedly be spurred by the law, and the right it gives anyone to sue if they don’t think it is being enforced, the law might end up being some sort of lawyers full employment act.