McCain holds ground on immigration
The Arizona Republic
Jun. 6, 2007
GOFFSTOWN, N.H. - Sen. John McCain held his ground on immigration reform Tuesday
despite pummeling from his Republican presidential rivals in a nationally
McCain, who helped negotiate the bipartisan compromise now under attack, also
declined to side with his nine competitors in insisting that English be made
America's official language.
At one point, he even jokingly quipped "Muchas gracias" to moderator Wolf
Blitzer of CNN when it was his turn to talk about the question.
The debate at Saint Anselm College in this key early primary state marked
the first time that the 2008 Republican field has shared the stage since
McCain and his Senate allies unveiled the details of their comprehensive
immigration-reform proposal, which includes a pathway to legalization for
immigrants who already have broken the law to enter the United States. It
also requires that steps be taken to tighten the border.
McCain defended the Senate agreement as a sincere, if imperfect, attempt to
realistically resolve a serious national security dilemma and chastised
opponents for trying to block it.
"And we can make it better, but it's our job to do the hard things, not the
easy things," McCain said to applause.
When McCain called on his critics to offer up a better idea, several hands
shot up, forcing him to add, "That will get the support of enough people so
that we can pass legislation."
Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the national Republican
frontrunner, dismissed McCain's bill as "a typical Washington mess" and
pointedly disputed McCain's contention that it adequately accounts for the
estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants already in the
country. Giuliani said the bill doesn't keep track of the immigrants who
leave the United States. The lack of a uniform database is the bill's "fatal
flaw," he said.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney drew claps when he advocated the
enforcement of the immigration laws already on the books and when he
criticized a probationary new "Z" visa proposed for illegal immigrants.
"It's simply not fair to say those people get put ahead in the line of all
the people who've been waiting legally to come to this country," Romney
Other candidates participating in Tuesday's debate were Sen. Sam Brownback,
R-Kan.; former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore; former Arkansas Gov. Mike
Huckabee; Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif.; Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas; Rep. Tom
Tancredo, R-Colo.; and former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson.
Former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., who is expected to enter the
presidential race soon, did not appear.
'English' a theme
The wide-ranging discussion hit on issues such as the Iraq war, and McCain,
a passionate war supporter, had a poignant exchange with an audience member
whose younger brother was killed in action in 2005.
But the questions consistently returned to immigration-related topics.
As on the immigration-reform bill, McCain stood alone when Blitzer asked if
any of the candidates objected to making English the official language of
the United States.
McCain cited the sovereignty of Native Americans, such as the Navajos in
Arizona, who have their own tribal language.
"It's not a big deal, but Native Americans are important to me in my state,"
McCain said. "Everybody knows that English has to be learned if anyone ever
wants to move up the economic ladder. That is obvious, and part of our
legislation, by the way, is a requirement to learn English."
Later in the debate, the English issue came up again.
"English is the language of this country, and you know what, we should not
be ashamed of that," Tancredo said.
After saying "Muchas gracias," McCain praised the contributions that
Hispanics have made to the military and said their influence "has enriched
Campaigning in N.H.
Earlier in the day, McCain lamented to reporters that worsening Capitol Hill
partisanship has hurt Congress' ability to fix the immigration problem and
tackle other key national issues.
"People like you analyze all the reasons why, but it is much more difficult
than it was 20 years ago, when I came to the Senate, for people with a clear
national objective," McCain said after hosting a town-hall-style event in
the rustic New Hampshire community of Gilford. "I mean, clearly, we've got
to secure our borders and resolve this issue, to sit down and work together,
and it's hard."
Immigration is on the minds of many New Hampshire voters, even among those
in the Gilford crowd, which was largely sympathetic to McCain.
Elizabeth Bright, a Gilford independent, says she likes McCain but is
skeptical that low-wage illegal workers would be able to pay a $5,000 fine
and travel to and from their country of origin before pursuing citizenship.
"I don't think these people can do it," Bright said. "I mean, $5,000 is a
lot of money. But I do agree with him that something has to be done."
Republican James Power of Laconia, N.H., is listening to the GOP candidates.
He isn't sold on McCain's immigration stance.
"One thing he said - and perhaps there might be some merit to it - is that
it's impossible to put the 12 million back where they came from," said
Power, who wore an "NRA" cap to McCain's town-hall session. "And that's
probably true, but this problem has been going on for well over 30 years,
and both parties have ignored it, and has now reached epidemic proportions."
Despite the attention paid to immigration reform, Andrew Smith, a political
scientist who directs the University of New Hampshire's polling center,
doubts that immigration is a huge issue in the state.
"We found in our last poll in early April that only 5 percent of likely
Republican primary voters said it was the most important problem, and only
10 percent said it was one of the top three most important problems," Smith
said. "So it's really not that big of deal."
Reach the reporter at email@example.com.