What’s the solution to the GOP’s election-year problems with Latino voters over immigration policy?
I sat with Senator John McCain this week for an interview that appears on Fox News Latino (click here to watch.) McCain, who ran as the Republican presidential candidate against Barack Obama in 2008, is a longtime GOP leader on immigration reform.
McCain has represented Arizona in the U.S. Senate for 25 years. With an estimated 1.7 Million Latinos, 30 percent of the Grand Canyon State is Latino, making it the fifth largest Latino population in the country. McCain’s past success with Hispanic voters makes him a Republican elder statesman and guide when it comes to talking about immigration and winning Latino votes.
Four years after his failed presidential bid, the Arizona senator believes it’s time to shift the blame for years of federal failure to implement immigration reform to Democrats in Congress, and specifically President Obama.
He has a point.
McCain has credibility on the issue from years of fighting for immigration reform. He took a big risk in joining President Bush and the late Senator Ted Kennedy to make a major effort to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2005.
The bi-partisan bill never got out of committee. Much of the blame was put on conservative talk radio opposition to “amnesty” for people who broke the law.
In 2007 a Democratic bill in the Senate could not get the 60 votes needed to end debate and force a vote.
There has been no progress made in Congress since then.
In both 2005 and 2007 the hard-right did make it extremely difficult for the GOP to develop a cohesive, unified message on immigration reform. Even modest reform proposals got labeled by some Republicans as “amnesty.”
But as McCain shrewdly and accurately points out, the right wasn’t the only source of opposition to his bill. For example in the senate proposals in 2007 never made to a floor vote because 16 Democrats joined with overwhelming Republican opposition to prevent it.
Now Sen. McCain wants Republicans to stop being defensive and turn the tables on Democrats who have not been supporters of immigration reform.
In our interview he reminded me that that groups on the left, notable the Farm Workers of America, and trade unions with strong ties to the Democrats also opposed to his guest worker program.
“The greatness of Ted Kennedy, as you know, was that he was willing—he and I agreed to vote against amendments that we otherwise might support. And I saw him speak rather sternly to then-Senator Obama, when Senator Obama proposed the amendment to quote, sunset, in other words, end the guest worker program.”
McCain told me that even though the media focus remains on right-wing opposition to guest worker programs and overall immigration reform there is little reason to think that opposition from the left is any less an obstacle than it was in 2005.
But of all of the topics we touched on, one drew a visceral response from McCain. Hispanic congressional leaders, such as Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat, describe McCain as a partner who in recent years “left the table” of negotiations over immigration reform. And Gutierrez blames Republicans for exploiting the immigration issue to create fear and fan anti-immigrant fervor.
He is clearly on the defensive when asked about the change in his support for immigration reform, especially when he faced a Tea Party challenge for his seat in 2010 and made border security his priority.
I asked him “Are people right to criticize you as having abandoned the immigrant [and], immigrant community?”
McCain was literally taken aback. He said “Well I hope not. But, I do also understand that there have been increases in border security.”
To win the support of Latinos, McCain speaks about “humane treatment” of the 12 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. And then he highlights three aspects of the immigration debate that he feels are ignored by Democrats but devastating to the Latino community: illegal drugs, drug violence and human trafficking.
He said “There are a hundred guides sitting on mountaintops right now in Arizona, guiding the drug cartels as they bring the drugs across the Arizona/Mexico border [and] up to Phoenix, where they are distributed throughout the nation.”
And then there is the human cost. “The young women are raped, they’re put in drop houses in Phoenix, Arizona, where they are kept in the most unspeakable condition, and held for ransom.”
“The human rights abuses,” Sen. McCain said, is the part of the illegal immigration problem that the Obama White House does not understand.
He even talked about undocumented men and women without driver’s licenses traveling on roads in the state who pose a danger to all motorists.
And he mentioned the environmental damage done by the drug dealers – the “tearing up of our wildlife refuges, which is taking place as well by these drug dealers and others who are coming across [the border].”
Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070 law is not popular with Latinos. But McCain praises the law and Governor Jan Brewer for her commitment to border security. He also eagerly awaits Marco Rubio’s Republican draft of an alternative to the DREAM Act.
Sen. McCain said Republicans will not lose Hispanic support by talking about the need for border security as a necessary precedent to any immigration reform. Despite a sharp decline in illegal crossings from Mexico into the U.S. and increases border security under President Obama he said all Americans want to know that the borders are protected.
McCain agrees that if Mitt Romney is to defeat Barack Obama in the presidential election he will have to have shift the perception that his immigration policies are harsh –including his support for “self-deportation,” and his opposition to the DREAM Act (the proposed legislation offering citizenship to undocumented people brought to the U.S. as children and now in school or the military).
A Pew Research poll last month found that Hispanic voters favor President Obama over Romney by 40 points: 67 percent to 27 percent. McCain lost Latino voters to Obama in 2008 by just 13 points.
McCain’s strategy, to force Democrats to take responsibility for the failure of immigration reform, has a big hill to climb with Latinos. But it may be the best hope for Mitt Romney and his fellow Republicans.
Juan Williams is a co-host of FNC's "The Five," where he is one of seven rotating Fox personalities.