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Immigration Issue Gets Little Attention On Convention Floor

People take the oath of citizenship during naturalization ceremonies at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
People take the oath of citizenship during naturalization ceremonies at the Los Angeles Convention Center. (By David Mcnew -- Getty Images)

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By Ben Pershing
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, September 4, 2008

ST. PAUL, Minn., Sept. 3 -- During the heat of the primary season late last year, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said it was imperative for his party to nominate a candidate who was tough on illegal immigration and didn't parrot President Bush's centrist stance on the issue.

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"If we don't," King said in December, "then we're in for another four to eight years of the squabbling we've had."

Yet as Republicans prepared to ratify Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) -- author, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), of the comprehensive immigration measure that died in the Senate last year -- as their presidential nominee this week, little of that squabbling has been on display in the Twin Cities.

Immigration has received scant mention in speeches on the convention floor, and King conceded Wednesday that "the number of people who have come up to me to complain about this, so far it's zero."

King and other critics of McCain's record on immigration attribute the relative silence on the issue to two factors: The Arizonan has shifted to a more conservative stance since his reform measure died; and the convention's attention has been diverted, by Hurricane Gustav and, subsequently, by the furor over the selection of McCain's running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

"I think it's probably a combination of both of those things," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform. The group has suggested that "McCain didn't want the public to understand how horrific" the "McKennedy Bill" was.

McCain has reassured some of his critics by saying that he understood the widespread opposition within the Republican base to any proposal that couples border security with the idea of a path to citizenship, or what critics call "amnesty."

"I got the message," McCain said at a campaign stop in South Carolina in November. "We will secure the borders first and then go on to other issues."

Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), who mounted a bid for the Republican presidential nomination based almost entirely on his strong opposition to illegal immigration, said he was pleased that McCain had "modified his position." Most of the battles over immigration, Tancredo said, were won by his allies during deliberations of the GOP platform committee before the convention began.

The party platform includes language calling for tougher enforcement of laws, including a crackdown on employers who hire illegal immigrants, punishment for "sanctuary cities" and quick completion of a fence along the border with Mexico.

"We oppose amnesty," the platform says. "The rule of law suffers if government policies encourage or reward illegal activity. The American people's rejection of en masse legalizations is especially appropriate given the federal government's past failures to enforce the law."

Tancredo said nearly everything he wanted "was pretty much accepted [by the platform committee], and that's where the fight was. There's no purpose in doing anything at the convention to raise hell about it."


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