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Immigration Issue Doesn't Divide McCain, Obama

Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was part of a bipartisan coalition of senators to work on an immigration bill. He stands outside the White House, after meeting with President George W. Bush on April 25, 2006, to discuss the  bill that stalled in the Senate.
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Illinois Sen. Barack Obama was part of a bipartisan coalition of senators to work on an immigration bill. He stands outside the White House, after meeting with President George W. Bush on April 25, 2006, to discuss the bill that stalled in the Senate.
Republican Sen. John McCain joins Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy (right) at a Capitol Hill press conference on revamping immigration, Sept. 26, 2006.
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Republican Sen. John McCain joins Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy (right) at a Capitol Hill press conference on revamping immigration, Sept. 26, 2006.

In recent years, public debate over illegal immigration has been passionate, divisive and loud, and it has provided plentiful fodder as a wedge issue for politicians, especially Republicans.

But there has been virtual silence on the topic on the presidential campaign trail.

"This is no disrespect to the candidates, but their positions are as distinct as Tweedledum's from Tweedledee's," says immigration lawyer Angelo Paparelli.

It is an irony that Arizona Republican John McCain is the presumptive presidential nominee for the party that has most ardently waged war against illegal immigration. In 2006, McCain co-sponsored the bipartisan McCain-Kennedy immigration bill — also supported by Illinois Sen. Barack Obama.

The bill would have stepped up enforcement at the border and in the workplace. It also would have expanded guest-worker programs and, most controversially, legalized millions of undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. if they paid fines, paid back taxes and learned English.

McCain's conservative colleagues derided the bill as "amnesty" and helped foment a grass-roots backlash. By 2007, as McCain was gearing up for his presidential bid, he backed down. When the Senate crafted legislation that year, he was nowhere to be seen, and some critics fault his absence for the bill's eventual failure.

In January of 2008, when NBC's Tim Russert asked McCain if he would support his own immigration bill if it came to him as president, McCain rejected the notion.

"It isn't gonna come," he said. "The lesson is, they want the border secured first. That's the lesson."

McCain now says he would have Southwest state governors first certify the border was secure before expanding any legal visas. But not everyone is convinced by the tougher talk.

"John McCain is emotionally invested in amnesty for illegal immigrants, period," says Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates less immigration.

Camarota believes either a President McCain or a President Obama might temper some of the more aggressive immigration enforcement of the Bush administration. In an interview last year with the editorial board of The Des Moines Register, Obama spoke about a different approach to workplace enforcement.

"I'm not particularly impressed with raids on plants that grab a handful of undocumented workers and send them home, leaving the company in a position where it can just hire the next batch," Obama said. "I don't think we've been serious about employer sanctions."

Still, immigration lawyer Paparelli doubts either McCain or Obama would make immigration a priority as president, at least not early in a first term.

"Immigration has been described as the third rail of American politics," Paparelli says, "but more vividly by some as a downed power line that anyone who touches it will be electrified."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jennifer Ludden helps edit energy and environment stories for NPR's National Desk, working with NPR staffers and a team of public radio reporters across the country. They track the shift to clean energy, state and federal policy moves, and how people and communities are coping with the mounting impacts of climate change.