For it before he was against it before he was for it: McCain on immigration

Lee-Anne Goodman, The Canadian Press

WASHINGTON - Three years ago, as mid-term congressional elections approached in the United States, John McCain blamed home invasions and murders in the American southwest on illegal immigrants, urging federal officials to build "the danged fence" to keep them out.

Apparently nervous about a primary challenge from an anti-immigration Tea Party candidate eyeing his job, McCain's sudden hard line represented a dramatic turnaround from the Arizona senator's record in Congress, where he championed unsuccessful immigration reform bills in 2007.

What a difference a presidential election makes — one in which the overwhelming majority of Hispanics, the country's fastest growing voting bloc, cast their ballots for Barack Obama, despite the president's own inaction on immigration reform.

McCain is now serving as one of the Republicans' most vocal proponents for a sweeping immigration overhaul. He was one of the key architects of a bipartisan deal reached in the U.S. Senate this week that calls for a path to citizenship for millions of the country's illegal immigrants.

As Obama prepared Tuesday to unveil details of the White House's immigration reform proposals in Nevada, McCain was front and centre on the morning talk-show circuit, emphasizing the urgent need to address the issue.

"We cannot have, forever, 11 million people living in the shadows in this country," said the former Republican presidential candidate.

This time around, however, McCain seems as motivated by politics as he is by compassion, reminding his fellow Republicans repeatedly that they face political extinction if they don't get on board.

"When a Democratic candidate gets 71 per cent of the vote, you can do the math and see the (party's) descent towards irrelevancy or failure to win an election," McCain said on MSNBC.

Earlier this week, he went further.

"If we continue to polarize the Latino slash Hispanic vote ... our chances for being in the majority are minimal," he told CNN.

"Many of us believe that they are a natural constituency of ours; small business, less regulation, big service in the military, pro-life, all of those reasons. But this issue of illegal immigration has obviously been a major driving factor in the decision-making of the Hispanic voter."

The proposed Senate deal — reportedly pushed forward with haste by Republican senators, who wanted to beat Obama to the punch — includes strong border security measures that would kick in immediately if signed into law.

That doesn't necessarily include a proposed fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, something McCain opposed in 2007 before he called for its completion in a 2010 campaign ad.

The longtime senator has suggested the prerequisite border security measures in the deal are aimed at winning over the more conservative lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives.

"We will and already are reaching across the capital," McCain said. "I think Republicans realize the realities of the 21st century."

He also shot down talk that Obama's immigration reform proposals will include same-sex, bi-national couples — a measure that will clearly not be warmly embraced by conservatives in the House.

"That to me is a red flag that frankly we will address in time," McCain said.

Not surprisingly, Obama's proposals are reportedly more liberal than those in the Senate deal, calling for a quicker path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

The president was said to have been "delighted" that the Senate reached a deal, and planned to praise lawmakers in Nevada on Tuesday, but there is daylight between his proposals and theirs.

For example, the Senate proposal wouldn't allow illegal immigrants to seek full citizenship until border security has been beefed up and a new system has been implemented to keep tabs on the employment status of migrant workers.

Obama won't endorse those proposals, a White House official told the Washington Post, due to concerns they could result in illegal immigrants waiting years for citizenship.