NY Times columnist reports McCain "has so far emphasized border security more than the Democrats," not that it's a reversal of his position on immigration

››› ››› MATT GERTZ

A New York Times Week in Review piece stated: "Senator John McCain, the early Republican front-runner whose championing of the bill [Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007] had made him look soft on illegal immigration, faded in the polls," adding that now McCain has "emphasized border security more than the Democrats have." But the article didn't mention that this "emphasi[s]" on border security is at odds with his previous position.

In a March 2 New York Times Week in Review piece, columnist and Times Magazine staff writer David Leonhardt wrote that after the defeat of the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007, "Senator John McCain, the early Republican front-runner whose championing of the bill had made him look soft on illegal immigration, faded in the polls," and asked: "How could Mr. McCain's resurgence happen only six months after Americans deluged members of Congress with phone calls opposing an immigration bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for many people in the country illegally?" Later in the article, Leonhardt stated "Mr. McCain, who says he was chastened by the reaction to the immigration bill, has so far emphasized border security more than the Democrats have." But Leonhardt didn't mention that McCain's current "emphasi[s]" on border security constitutes a reversal of his previous position on immigration.

In fact, McCain's current position -- that "we've got to secure the borders first" -- is at odds with his prior position that border security could not be disaggregated from other aspects of comprehensive immigration reform without being rendered ineffective. As The Washington Post noted in a February 20 article, "What McCain is saying has changed. Whereas once he firmly said that no immigration legislation could work unless it twinned tougher border enforcement with a guest-worker program and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, he now maintains that sealing the border must come first."

In a March 30, 2006, Senate floor statement, McCain said: "While strengthening border security is an essential component of national security, it must also be accompanied by immigration reforms." He added: "[A]s long as there are jobs available in this country for people who live in poverty and hopelessness in other countries, those people will risk their lives to cross our borders -- no matter how formidable the barriers -- and most will be successful." Asserting that "[o]ur reforms need to reflect that reality," McCain said, "We need to establish a temporary worker program that permits workers from other countries -- to the extent they are needed -- to fill jobs that would otherwise go unfilled."

Additionally, at no point did Leonhardt note that during CNN's January 30 Republican presidential debate, McCain asserted that he "would not" support his own comprehensive immigration proposal that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants if it came to a vote on the Senate floor. From the debate:

JANET HOOK (Los Angeles Times staff writer): Senator McCain, let me just take the issue to you, because you obviously have been very involved in it. During this campaign, you, like your rivals, have been putting the first priority, heaviest emphasis on border security. But your original immigration proposal back in 2006 was much broader and included a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants who are already here.

What I'm wondering is -- and you seem to be downplaying that part. At this point, if your original proposal came to a vote on the Senate floor, would you vote for it?

McCAIN: It won't. It won't. That's why we went through the debate --

HOOK: I know, but what if it did?

McCAIN: No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today. The people want the borders secured first. And so to say that that would come to the floor of the Senate -- it won't. We went through various amendments which prevented that ever -- that proposal.

From Leonharadt's Times Week in Review piece, headlined "The Border and the Ballot Box":

ON June 7 of last year, a bill to overhaul the nation's immigration system -- a bill supported by President Bush and the Democratic leaders of Congress -- died in the Senate. It died mostly because of grass-roots opposition, and its downfall appeared to serve as an announcement of the issue's new political potency. For much of 2007, immigration seemed certain to play a dominant role in the 2008 presidential campaign.

After the bill failed, Senator John McCain, the early Republican front-runner whose championing of the bill had made him look soft on illegal immigration, faded in the polls. The new Republican front-runners, Rudolph W. Giuliani and Mitt Romney, were trading accusations over who had been nicer to illegal immigrants in the past. "It's been wonderful," Representative Tom Tancredo, the most emphatically anti-immigration candidate, said during a Republican debate in November, "because all I've heard is people trying to out-Tancredo Tancredo."

[...]

In retrospect, those final weeks of 2007 -- just before actual voting began -- look like the recent high point for criticisms of illegal immigration. Consider that Mr. Huckabee was the one Republican candidate who seemed even friendlier to immigrants, including illegal ones, than Mr. McCain. In the November debate when other candidates tried to out-Tancredo each other, Mr. Huckabee instead upbraided Mr. Romney for his views on in-state tuition. "In all due respect, we're a better country than to punish children for what their parents did," Mr. Huckabee told him. "We're a better country than that."

In early January, he won the Iowa caucus in an upset of Mr. Romney. Shortly before the caucus, Mr. Tancredo became the first candidate to quit the campaign, evidently fearful that he would not even attract a respectable protest vote.

It's hard, in fact, to see how a single 2008 Republican candidate benefited from anti-immigration rhetoric. All the while, Mr. McCain's campaign bus was being followed around the early-voting states by a white van called the "Amnesty Truth Express." Outside his Florida headquarters in West Palm Beach, a few days before he won the primary that established him as the clear front-runner, the van displayed a sign reading, "McCain Equals Amnesty."

How could Mr. McCain's resurgence happen only six months after Americans deluged members of Congress with phone calls opposing an immigration bill that would have provided a path to citizenship for many people in the country illegally? And how could it happen when several states, including Arizona and Colorado, have recently implemented laws to make life harder for these immigrants? The country's previous backlashes offer something of a guide.

[...]

"The only scenario I can see for reform is one that tries to damp down the frenzy about illegal immigration," Christopher Jencks, a Harvard sociologist who has studied the subject, said. To varying degrees, Mr. McCain and his Democratic opponent -- whether Hillary Rodham Clinton or Barack Obama -- will most likely try to balance security and openness in the general-election campaign. Mr. McCain, who says he was chastened by the reaction to the immigration bill, has so far emphasized border security more than the Democrats have.

No matter how it happens, the country will almost certainly need an influx of new arrivals in coming decades. The baby boomers are about to start turning 65. Someone will have to take their place in the work force - and help pay their Medicare and Social Security bills.

After a year of political whiplash, it seems safe to conclude that the anti-immigration fervor was never as bad as it seemed but isn't permanently gone, either. As ever, we Americans like to say that we live in a nation of immigrants. But we are also prone to believing that the last great immigrants were the ones who arrived decades ago. The country can never quite make up its mind how open it should be.

It was in 1882, after all, that Congress significantly restricted immigration for the first time, by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act. Only four years later, the Statue of Liberty -- "the Mother of Exiles," in the words of the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed inside the statute -- rose above New York Harbor.

Posted In
Immigration, Border Security
Network/Outlet
The New York Times
Stories/Interests
John McCain, 2008 Elections
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