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Frank Sharry

Frank Sharry

Posted: September 18, 2008 03:54 PM

Bienvenidos a Election 2008: The Truth on McCain's Immigration Ad


First, Sen. John McCain was for reform - championing a bipartisan, comprehensive immigration bill with courage and leadership until it collapsed in the summer of 2007. Then, with Republican primary voters in a surly mood toward immigrants, he changed his position, saying that he wouldn't support his own reform bill when competing for the Republican nomination.

Now, the McCain campaign has launched Spanish language attack ads making the outrageous claim that Senator Obama and the Democrats blocked comprehensive immigration reform in 2007.

If you're trying to follow along at home, let's summarize: Senator McCain - in English - is now saying that he wouldn't support the comprehensive immigration bill he once co-authored with Senator Ted Kennedy, a bill that he previously voted for. Senator McCain's campaign - in Spanish -- is now attacking Obama for blocking a comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007, a bill that Senator Obama voted for.

McCain got a boost on Wednesday when San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Ruben Navarrette joined his chorus. Navarrette accused Senate Democrats - a majority of whom voted for the bill - of conspiring to kill the measure by supporting "poison pill" amendments intended to increase Republican opposition to the bill.

Okay, let's summarize some more: Navarrette claims that Senate Democrats - who used their slim majority status to bring up a bipartisan bill and spend four weeks of valuable Senate floor time on it - deliberately scuttled a measure that was the signature issue of one of their most cherished leaders, Senator Ted Kennedy.

And you thought the lipstick and sex education for kindergartners misrepresentations were whoppers.

Here is what the McCain camp is doing. Their new Spanish-language ad attacks Barack Obama and the Democrats for supporting what the ad calls "poison pill amendments" that they argue led to the failure of the immigration bill in 2007. They are running the ads in the swing states of Nevada, Colorado, and New Mexico, states in which the growing Latino electorate may well decide the election. The McCain strategy is to try to muddy the waters about who is for comprehensive immigration reform and who is not, an issue that has emerged as a defining one for many foreign-born Latino citizens who will vote in November.

The problem is that McCain and Navarrette's claim that Obama killed immigration reform is laughable. I was there. At the time I was the head of the National Immigration Forum, a leading advocacy group. The organization was a protagonist in the debate and a supporter of the admittedly flawed Senate bill. Let me tell you: identifying who killed the bill isn't even close. The bill died because of intense Republican opposition fueled by anti-immigrant groups, talk radio, and talk television, not Democratic amendments designed to protect U.S. workers by fixing a flawed temporary worker program.

But you don't have to rely on my word alone. Consider this: when both the New York Times and the Washington Times agree on something, you know there's a there there.

The New York Times called the McCain claims that poison pill amendments blocked reform "fraudulent" and "a gross distortion" The editorial states "the bill was killed by Mr. McCain's party. Its supporters were hoping to attract 25 to 30 Republican votes, but they could only round up 12 in the wake of all of those right-wing attacks."

The Washington Times says the McCain campaign's "read of the situation is off....They argue Obama voted for the amendment to sunset the guest-worker program after five years. That amendment passed 49-48. But the entire agreement was so fragile that without that amendment, sought by labor unions, even more Democrats would have voted against the final bill...It's arguable that amendment actually kept the bill alive longer than it otherwise would have lasted."

And here is what veteran Latino affairs columnist Gebe Martinez writes in Politico.com: "A few days ago, in what was clearly an insult to anyone who participated or watched the Senate immigration debates, McCain issued a Spanish-language ad that wrongly blamed his Democratic rival, Barack Obama and fellow Democrats for blocking approval of the Senate's broad immigration bill. But the bill fell when only 12 of the 49 Senate Republicans supported it. The ad is jaw-dropping stuff."

Now just to make sure we're not "practicing revisionist history," let's look at some analysis from 2007 as well:

Conservative columnist Linda Chavez, a supporter of comprehensive immigration reform, criticized "the radio talk show hosts who encouraged their millions of listeners to shut down the congressional phone system with calls protesting 'amnesty'" and predicted that "Republicans who believe this is going to help them at the polls in 2008 may well find themselves sitting on the back benches for years to come."

Conservative columnist Robert Novak blamed the bill's defeat on Republican Senators who were "intimidated" by "an increasingly hysterical onslaught from constituents demanding the death of the 'amnesty' for immigrants they heard vilified on talk radio." He cites the cowardice of Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the exultation of freshman Jim DeMint (R-SC), who exploited his role in stopping the bill to raise money ("We did it!" his post-defeat fundraising appeal trumpeted), and Republican opponents who "saw in the xenophobia of their backers a ray of light in the bleak political landscape."

In fact, no less an authority than Senator McCain himself pointed to the real problem way back in June 2007. The day the bill crashed and burned, Senator McCain blamed opposition from his own Republican Party in an article in Congressional Quarterly: "I just think the opposition to it was very strong," he said. "A lot of the Republican base was passionate about the issue, and they made their influence felt."

And then there's Ruben Navarrette, a columnist I do not always agree with but usually find his to be an independent and compelling voice. Not this time. He seems so desperate to substantiate McCain's bogus charges that he cites a June 2007 David Broder column as proof he is right. As described by Navarrette, Broder "blasted" Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid "for going 'out of his way to rewrite (the immigration bill) to meet the demands of organized labor.'"

Navarrette must have missed Broder's post mortem of the bill's demise, from July 2007, where he wrote: "With all its shortcomings, the defeated legislation offered some prospect of improving at least some aspects of that broken system. But it was buried by an avalanche of phone calls to the Capitol from good citizens decrying what they had been told on many talk radio stations and by some conservative politicians: that it was an amnesty bill. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a man I have criticized on other occasions, stood his ground and produced 33 Democratic votes to move to close debate -- much to his credit. But Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who had promised to support the bill, which was President Bush's last hope for a major domestic victory, saw only a dozen Republicans rally to that cause -- and then bailed out himself, voting no."

Welcome to Election 2008 en español. I get it. McCain's ad is an attempt to negatively define his opponent on a key issue with new voters, and to distract them from the "R" next to his name. Given that McCain's own party embraced an uncompromising anti-immigrant agenda in its platform in St. Paul, and that recent polling shows him doing quite poorly with Latino voters, it may make some political sense. But for me, a longtime advocate for comprehensive immigration reform, it leaves me disappointed and angry.

I knew Senator McCain. I worked with him. I admired him. Senator McCain was a friend of mine. Unfortunately, candidate McCain is no Senator McCain.

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