Top GOP Hopefuls Keep Distance on Immigration

GOP Sen. John McCain, right, worked on border security and immigration changes last year alongside Democratic colleagues Barack Obama and Edward Kennedy. This year, the Arizonan has delegated work on the issues to staff members and two fellow Republicans.
GOP Sen. John McCain, right, worked on border security and immigration changes last year alongside Democratic colleagues Barack Obama and Edward Kennedy. This year, the Arizonan has delegated work on the issues to staff members and two fellow Republicans. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Less than a year ago, Sen. John McCain of Arizona was the most visible Republican in the fight for immigration reform, having joined forces with Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to clamp down on border security and create a guest-worker program for the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants.

Now, a renewed effort is underway, but this time without McCain as Kennedy's co-star. As he stumps in Iowa and New Hampshire, McCain has handed off day-to-day negotiations on immigration to his staff and to fellow Senate Republicans Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). In his formal presidential announcement speech in New Hampshire last month, he made no mention of the issue.

"The fact that he's not in the room helping to build a bipartisan consensus . . . it's going to be far more difficult to get a bipartisan bill," said Frank Sharry, a pro-immigrant lobbyist. "This guy is my hero on this issue. I am heartbroken that he's not in the room. Heartbroken."

Senators from both parties and senior White House officials are hurrying to negotiate a deal that would give illegal immigrants a path to legal status after clearing criminal checks and paying fines. The plan would beef up border security and put new emphasis on enforcing workplace rules. Democratic leaders have given them until tomorrow to produce legislation before forcing another vote on the McCain-Kennedy bill that failed last year.

In the meantime, the leading Republican candidates for president are distancing themselves from the plan.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who just a year ago characterized the bipartisan efforts as "reasonable proposals," now derides the plans being negotiated in Congress as "amnesty" for illegal immigration.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose record is filled with pro-immigrant speeches and actions, has been largely silent on the debate. And Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, another GOP contender, was a key McCain ally on immigration a year ago but recently renounced his support for the approach.

"When the public opinion matters most is during elections," said Steven Camarota, the research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, whose group advocates a harder line on illegal immigration. "That's why all the candidates tend to move toward enforcement and not talk so much about legalization."

Activists on both sides of the debate say the presidential candidates are becoming more conservative on the issue, believing that GOP primary voters who will decide the Republican nomination want tougher positions on how to deal with illegal immigrants.

More than one-third of Republicans said in exit polls after the 2006 election that illegal immigration was extremely important to their vote. More than two-thirds of conservative Republicans surveyed by Pew Research in March said that newcomers from other countries threaten "customs and values" of America.

McCain's closest advisers say he is still a behind-the-scenes force in attempting to reach compromise on a bill that would secure the border and create a new guest-worker program. "There isn't a scintilla of difference between the way he talks about immigration" today and a year ago, said McCain strategist Mark Salter.

McCain said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he is "heavily engaged" in the negotiations and makes calls on the immigration issue every day. He cited a recent meeting with Kennedy and others as evidence that he is still involved and predicted the group is "very close" to a deal.


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