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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)

But a top Senate Democrat said last week that McCain's absence from the negotiations is hurting efforts to reach an agreement. And activists on both sides of the debate say the change in the senator's profile on the issue is striking.

"Why is his name not on it now? Why isn't he leading the negotiations right now? Because he knows it's killing him in the primary," Camarota said. "It's an issue that he could be out front on. He has in the past. He ain't anymore."

A Different Focus

Sharry remembers watching in awe as Giuliani faced the cameras in 1994 to defend illegal immigrants, declaring: "If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city."

It was a remarkable rebuke to some in his party, recalls Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. In California that year, conservative activists pushed through Proposition 187, a sweeping referendum that stripped illegal immigrants and their children of the right to state government services and helped Republican Gov. Pete Wilson win reelection.

Giuliani "was a god in the mid-1990s on this issue," Sharry said this week.

Surveys almost a decade later show that the debate continues. Two-thirds of Americans say that illegal immigrants should not receive social services from state and local governments, according to a 2006 Pew study. But more than 70 percent say the children of illegal immigrants should be allowed to attend public schools.

As mayor of New York, Giuliani filed suit against the federal government, challenging what he said were unconstitutional provisions aimed at immigrants. And he ordered his police not to divert time and resources from other crimes to process immigration violations.

"He was constantly extolling the glory of illegal immigration," said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a group that advocates limits on immigration and penalties for undocumented workers. "He's backing away from some of it now."

Aides to Giuliani said he has not changed his positions on immigration and supports efforts to increase border security and find a way to deal with illegal immigrants.

But Giuliani now rarely emphasizes immigration, preferring to focus on his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, his success at lowering city taxes "23 times," and his reputation for reducing crime.

When he talks about immigration, he usually focuses on the need for a new, tamper-proof ID card for illegal immigrants and the importance of finding and deporting criminals or terrorists who enter the country illegally.

"We need to know everyone who's in the United States that comes in here from a foreign country. And we have to separate the ones who are dangerous from the ones who aren't," Giuliani said on "Fox News Sunday." "We need people to come forward who are working so they'll get identified, get fingerprinted, get photographed. And then we should focus our attention on the people who don't come forward."


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