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McCain Tells Latinos Immigration Reform is 'Top Priority'

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., listens to a question from Enrique Morones at the San Diego Convention Center while participating in the during the National Council of La Raza keynote luncheon in San Diego, Calif., July 14, 2008. (Associated Press)

By Juliet Eilperin
SAN DIEGO -- Speaking at the National Council of La Raza conference today, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) engaged in a lively give-and-take with several Latino activists who questioned his stance on illegal immigration.

In one heated exchange with an audience member, a questioner asked McCain whether he, like presumptive Democratic nominee Barack Obama (Ill.), would make immigration reform a top priority as president and provide a pathway to citizenship for 12 million undocumented workers living illegally in the U.S. as part of a single immigration bill.

McCain responded by defending his record on immigration against Obama's, saying the Democrat took his lead from labor unions and "voted for amendments that would have killed the bill. That's a fact sir, that's a fact... I think my actions speak for themselves." When it comes to immigration, McCain said, "It's my top priority today and it will be my top priority tomorrow."

But the questioner continued to press McCain, asking whether he would address border security and immigration reform in a single bill. "One single bill?" he asked.

At that point, McCain reverted to the position he adopted earlier this year during the GOP primary, where he suggested the country should take on the question of border enforcement before addressing questions like guest workers and amnesty for undocumented workers. "One single, comprehensive bill -- but first we have to assure the American people that the borders are secure," he said, adding that if politicians fail to do that, "then we don't pass the legislation."

After a couple of questions a La Raza official suggested the senator had to leave, but McCain -- who joked that in light of the "tough questions" he should have stuck to his prepared speech -- insisted he would take a couple more. At one point he even tossed his microphone into the audience, at which point the questioner asked whether McCain would commit to ending the "inhumane raids" that separate illegal immigrants from their babies and small children.

"When your forefathers came, there was no illegal-legal. Everyone was welcome at Ellis Island," the man asserted.

But McCain refused to rule out the idea of raids on illegal immigrants, saying, "The United States has to have secure borders sir, and that's necessary, even if you disagree."

In his prepared speech before the crowd, McCain argued he deserved Latinos' support even if they have backed Democrats in the past. Saying that he would "prefer" not to attack Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the presumptive GOP nominee added that he felt obligated to respond to Obama's allegations Sunday that he backed away from comprehensive immigration reform for political reasons.

"At a moment of great difficulty in my campaign, when my critics said it would be political suicide for me to do so, I helped author with Senator [Edward] Kennedy comprehensive immigration reform, and fought for its passage. I cast a lot of hard votes, as did the other Republicans and Democrats who joined our bipartisan effort," McCain told the audience. "I did so not just because I believed it was the right thing to do for Hispanic Americans. It was the right thing to do for all Americans."

Obama, the senator continued, "declined to cast some of those tough votes.... I never ask for any special privileges from anyone just for having done the right thing. Doing my duty to my country is its own reward. But I do ask for your trust that when I say, 'I remain committed to fair, practical and comprehensive immigration reform,' I mean it. I think I have earned that trust."

The Obama campaign, responding to McCain's remarks, argued that it was unfair to attack Obama for supporting amendments which they said were aimed at improving the bill rather than killing it.

"The facts are that Barack Obama stood up for comprehensive immigration reform in the Senate, and even the measure the McCain campaign is attacking us on today was supported by 40 immigrant groups supporting reform including La Raza," said Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor. "And you don't need to take our word for it -- a co-chair for John McCain's campaign, Mel Martinez, praised Obama's leadership on the bill and thanked him for his support. The fact is while Martinez was praising Obama for 'standing firm in the face of extreme pressure' John McCain was telling GOP primary voters that he wouldn't even have voted for his own bill."

During his speech McCain acknowledged it would not be easy to win some of the members of today's audience. "I know many of you are Democrats, regrettably," he said, as a large group in the audience applauded, "and many of you would usually vote for the presidential candidate of that party." The audience cheered, in solidarity with Obama.

"I know I must work hard to win your votes, but you have always given me a respectful hearing, and I appreciate it," McCain continued, adding that while he admires both Obama and his former opponent, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), "I intend to compete for your votes by continuing to earn your trust."

McCain got a warm welcome from La Raza's president Janet Murguía, who made a point of highlighting McCain's longstanding ties with the Hispanic community by saying "Nobody has to tell John McCain Latinos are hardworking and entrepreneurial." Murguía made a visible slip as she handed off the mike to McCain by implying he would be elected this fall, saying, "To our next... your presumptive Republican nominee, John McCain." The crowd was friendly, letting out a cheer when McCain mentioned his trip this month to Mexico and Colombia, clapping as he outlined some of his policy proposals and giving him a standing ovation at the end of the speech.

Seeking to woo the group, McCain reiterated his commitment to achieving comprehensive immigration reform in terms that appealed to a Latino audience. While he continued to say he would focus on securing U.S. borders first, he framed the pledge in language that sounded more favorable to immigrants than his usual town-hall remarks.

"We must prove we have the resources to secure our borders and use them, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States," he said. "When we have achieved border security goal, we must enact and implement the other parts of practical, fair and necessary immigration policy. We have economic and humanitarian responsibilities as well, and they require no less dedication from us in meeting them."

Describing some of the illegal immigrants who died as they tried to cross the border in the Southwest, McCain concluded his vivid portrait of these dead Latinos by saying, "These simply were God's children who wanted to be Americans." The audience applauded with vigor.

McCain also devoted a significant portion of his speech to economic issues -- he noted that there are two million Latino-owned businesses in the U.S. -- saying he would ease the path to recovery by keeping taxes low and promoting trade agreements with Latin America. Arguing that tax increases translate into lost jobs, McCain predicted, "I'm not going to let that happen. I'm going to keep taxes low and cut them when I can."

Taking another shot at the presumptive Democratic nominee, McCain made a point of tweaking the Illinois senator for failing to ever visit Latin America, a hit that resonated with the crowd.
"And while it is surely not my intention to become my opponent's scheduler, I hope Senator Obama soon visits some of the other countries of the Americas for the first time," he said, sparking applause. "Were he to do so, I think he, too, would see that stronger economic bonds with our neighbors and the closer friendships they encourage, are a great benefit in many ways to our country."

McCain also urged the audience to lobby Obama to join him in a town hall meeting as part of the campaign. Alluding to the controversy that flared up last week when his economic adviser, former senator Phil Gramm (R-Tex.) called Americans "whiners" who were in the midst of a "mental recession."

Americans, he suggested, "don't want to hear the sound bite, the misstatement, surrogate who may have made a mistake. They want to know about us."

By Web Politics Editor  |  July 14, 2008; 5:22 PM ET
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