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Jeremy Goren Headshot

McCain and Obama: Fuzzy On Immigration

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It's difficult to pin down clear immigration policies from the candidates for president. The briar patch of immigration, politically useful in other times, has generally proven a no-fly zone for Senators Obama and McCain. It received only sparse mention at the conventions, a far cry from the last mid-term elections where it seemed priority number one. And it has factored less than prominently on the campaign trail -- except when talking to special-interest groups. This shouldn't surprise anyone.

The most immigration has reared its head lately has been in the Spanish-language TV ads the two Senators have hurled at each other -- each filled with falsehoods about the other candidate. McCain's ad asserts that Obama was responsible for derailing immigration reform, and that's blatantly false. Obama's ad not only wrongly associates his rival with Rush Limbaugh -- the two have stood far apart on immigration -- but even quoted Limbaugh deceptively out-of-context while doing so. The most accurate part of the ad may be its title, "Dos caras" -- "Two Faces."

There was a time when Sen. McCain could point to his legislative efforts on immigration and really outdistance himself from Sen. Obama. No longer. McCain spent years in the Senate addressing the web of immigration issues that affected his constituency in the border state of Arizona. And he co-sponsored (with Sen. Ted Kennedy) the major immigration bill that's come closest to passing in recent years, a kind of middle-of-the-road hodge-podge that attempted a combination of increased enforcement and a 'path to citizenship'.

The latter element put McCain at great odds with much of the GOP. Since his campaign for president began, however, and McCain has tried to bolster support from the right wing of his party, he seems to have changed his ideas on immigration. He now says that he would not even vote for the bill that he himself put before the Senate because, "The people want the borders secured first."

He said of his shift to the right on immigration in an AP article last November, "I got the message ... We will secure the borders first and then go on to other issues." Before last year, McCain proved himself a truly, yes, maverick voice on immigration, taking a more moderate if not slightly liberal stance. He's now retreated to the right. Usually. Speaking before the Irish-American Presidential Forum last week he suddenly sounded a bit like his pre-candidate self, lauding his immigrant predecessors and calling again for the 'path to citizenship', as he did in an interview with Univision, during which he also tried to avoid admitting he voted for a border wall.

So, how can we compare the two men? Though it may be futile at this point, we can look at their voting records. Both voted for the McCain/Kennedy bill, which contained the earned 'path to citizenship' that included learning English and paying fines. Both voted for constructing 700 miles of the much-maligned border fence. Both co-sponsored the DREAM Act to provide relief for certain undocumented students. Obama also sponsored the Citizenship Promotion Act of 2007, which would have eased the rising monetary costs of legal immigration, so as to speed up the backlog and not encourage people to skirt the system. That bill didn't go anywhere.

We can also look at their campaign websites. In general Sen. Obama's official platform is little different on a broad scale from the McCain/Kennedy bill, which Pres. Bush also supported. Secure borders through "additional personnel, infrastructure and technology on the border and at our ports of entry." Path to citizenship. And a vague reference to the bureaucratic 'backlog'.

Obama does add that the raids conducted under Bush's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have been ineffective and unjust, saying that the number of actual undocumented workers caught in the raids is so small as to render them little more than lip service to enforcement and that they "have placed all the burdens of a broken system onto immigrant families".

Earlier this summer Obama told the National Council of La Raza: "When communities are terrorized by ICE immigration raids, when nursing mothers are torn from their babies, when children come home from school to find their parents missing, when people are detained without access to legal counsel, when all that is happening, the system just isn't working, and we need to change it."

These things are happening on a larger scale than either candidate mentions -- and neither has really addressed the raids on immigrants' homes, which often happen without legal justification, or the detention and in some cases deportation of people not legally removable -- including some U.S. citizens. But Angela Kelley of The American Immigration Law Foundation believes that Obama, while probably not imposing a moratorium on raids, would implement safeguards; whereas, McCain would probably continue the current DHS practices.

McCain's website does have a decidedly pro-enforcement bent. The long quotation from him at the top of the "Border Security and Immigration" page tries to reassure his new base that he always shared their concerns about securing the border as the number-one priority but that he just had failed in making that clear for them before. It hasn't ever been clear with him. For instance, in a Republican primary debate on 01.05.06, he said, "We have to secure the borders first." Then on FOX on 04.02.07, when asked if border security had to happen before other reforms, he said, "Not before." For McCain, immigration has recently become purely a national security issue. (Both sourced here.)

His platform seems focused on increased militarization of the border with "physical and virtual barriers," more personnel, more funding and unmanned aircraft. But even some enforcement proponents don't see border measures, such as those both candidates support, as effective means to decrease the undocumented population. For instance, even Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) has said that workplace enforcement and the removal of incentives to come here are more effective and cost-effective ways to combat undocumented immigration.

In fact, history has shown that even as more deterrents spring up on the border, the undocumented population continues to climb and migrants still die in the desert, forced into more-remote areas by the barricades, particularly in McCain's home state, which has generally been the most trafficked by border-crossers. Just look at how the 'shadow population' boomed through the '90s when border construction began. There are some who say the border security actually increases the undocumented population by disrupting the naturally cyclical flow of some migration. ("Backfire at the Border"(pdf) by Prof. Douglas Massey of Princeton is essential reading on this.)

After border security, McCain touts "Comprehensive Immigration Initiatives for a Secure Nation", which centers on an electronic employee verification system and prosecuting employers who employed undocumented workers, followed by a plan to "Meet America's labor needs" with temporary-worker programs.

Overall, the tone of this platform leaves far behind the McCain who said things like:

"Hispanics is what we're talking about, a different culture, a different language, which has enriched my state where Spanish was spoken before English was. In Washington DC, go to the Vietnam War Memorial and look at the names engraved in black granite. You'll find a whole lot of Hispanic names. They must come into country legally, but they have enriched our culture and our nation as every generation of immigrants before them."

(GOP debate 06.03.07)

And "We need to sit down as Americans and recognize these are God's children as well. And they need some protection under the law; they need some of our love and compassion." (GOP YouTube debate 11.28.07) (Both sourced here.)

Kelley, who worked with McCain on his immigration bill, says that "in his heart he does believe in helping the 12 million [undocumented people]" and doing so in a practical way; but, so did Pres. Bush. She says that McCain's political situation, however, now and perhaps in the future, too, makes it "toxic" for him to approach some of the elements necessary to achieve those goals.

Human rights and reform of the notoriously flawed system of legal immigration make McCain's page, but way down at the bottom and in much less detail than the other parts of the policy.

Sen. Obama has given us a clearer sense of his beliefs on immigration, if not his plans, through a downloadable PDF on his website -- decidedly welcome since his actual page on immigration is very sparse. But the "FactSheet" is also fairly meager. Obama did respond in some depth to a questionnaire sent him by a group called The Sanctuary, a "grassroots effort of pro-migrant, human-rights, and civil-rights bloggers and on-line activists". His responses, now spread throughout the Internet, are detailed and fairly consistent with his platform -- and near where McCain used to be. (McCain apparently refused the questionnaire.)

One interesting distinction between the two Senators is that Obama, acknowledging the foreign policy components of immigration, repeatedly mentions (at least on his site and in the questionnaire) the need to improve conditions in so-called sender countries, Mexico in particular, saying that will cut down on the desperation of people to come here. But he seems unclear on what it means to "fix the dysfunctional bureaucracy" of immigration -- though at least he believes it's a priority. Does he see that it's much more than just the 'backlog' but the entire culture and mechanism of the system?

Bassina Farbenblum, a civil rights lawyer at Seton Hall Law's Center for Social Justice, currently suing ICE on behalf of people -- including three lawful permanent residents and three U.S. citizens -- whose homes were raided, doesn't foresee much progress on immigration with either Obama or McCain. Neither does Mehlman, who comes in far apart from Farbenblum on immigration policy.

(He says arrests of legal residents and possible Constitutional violations are, essentially, acceptable collateral damage; Farbenblum echoes Obama that the raids are ineffective and adds that they're "set up in a way that peoples' rights are completely secondary to the enforcement...which has very dangerous implications for everyone.")

Says Mehlman, "The positions Obama and McCain have taken in the Senate are less of a priority with the American public...The idea of giving some sort of amnesty to the people who broke our laws is not only not a priority but, I think, if either one of these guys were to pursue that, it would be the shortest Presidential honeymoon on record."

Policy uncertainty is, of course, the order of the day during campaign time, particularly on such a dander-raising subject.

In terms of what might change with the next administration, says Farbenblum, "It's really hard to know at this stage."

"At 20,000 feet," Kelley says, "which is where a campaign is run, there's not a lot of difference" between Obama and McCain on immigration. It's the details, she says, that reveal the real distinctions. For instance, would either man pursue having local law enforcement become deputized immigration agents? She does think that both men have the will to try to "carry the ball over to the end-zone" -- something Pres. Bush was unable to do. That will come into play, she says, in whether the next president will be able to unite the freshman and sophomore Democrats on the Hill and mobilize them to act on immigration. The nature of those classes of legislators, she believes, may matter even more than that of the president.

As for the candidates, she thinks Obama has a more cohesive, "unified" plan, one that encompasses more than just enforcement. Even if he seems reticent to talk about it now. And no one (including Michelle Malkin) seems quite satisfied with John McCain and the question of his multiple faces.

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