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McCain Courts Latino Voters

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Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.)(WDCpix)

YUMA, Ariz.—This dusty agricultural city, home of a Marine Corps air station and Army proving grounds for more than a decade, was the center of a big wave of illegal immigration into the United States. Today, immigration registers barely a blip on the local political radar screen as some Border Patrol agents pine for the good old days of mass arrests and too much to do.

In 2004, the Border Patrol arrested 139,000 illegal immigrants trying to cross the 118-mile-long “Yuma Sector,” that stretches from the Imperial San Dunes in California to the heart of the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge in Arizona. But building a fence, installing high-tech monitoring equipment, temporarily deploying National Guard troops and sharply increasing the number of Border Patrol agents have slashed arrests to less than 8,000 this year.

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Illustration by: Matt Mahurin

“Yuma has experienced the largest drop off in [illegal immigrant] arrests in Border Patrol history,” Border Patrol spokesman Michael Bernacke said. The steep decline, he said, shows that fewer immigrants are attempting to cross the border illegally because they know the chance of getting caught has increased. “We are enforcing the law like it’s supposed to be enforced, and we are prosecuting everybody for illegal entry.”

The drop in border arrests has been linked to a lower crime rate in Yuma, where police used to regularly raid “drop houses” — places where smugglers stashed illegal immigrants before shipping them to other U.S. cities. When asked about the situation, Yuma Mayor Larry Nelson said, “First secure the border before you do anything else with immigration.”

This position has been strongly voiced by Sen. John McCain, the Republican presidential nominee, ever since his bipartisan effort, with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), for comprehensive immigration reform failed in June 2007. Their plan was supported by President George W. Bush, who also proposed immigration reform that offered a pathway to legalization, even citizenship, for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States.

That suggestion of amnesty was the opposite of what the GOP base wanted. In fact, McCain’s immigration-reform plan was cited as one reason why his run for the presidency almost collapsed in 2007.

But during the primary season in early 2008, and throughout the summer, McCain repeatedly said that securing the border must come before any other immigration issue. “We know what the situation is today — people want the borders secured first,” McCain said in a January debate among GOP presidential hopefuls. Unlike in the first half of 2007, he made no mention of a “pathway for citizenship” for illegal immigrants.

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But that all changed this week. At a campaign rally in Scranton, Pa., on Monday, McCain again declared his support for comprehensive immigration reform that would include a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, though the border remains far from secure — notwithstanding the dramatic strides made in Yuma.

The Latino Vote

Why has McCain resurrected illegal immigration as an issue in a presidential campaign that has largely ignored the subject?

A survey released last week by the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan research group, might have something to do with this. For it contained some bad news for McCain. The survey revealed that he lagged far behind his Democratic opponent, Sen. Barack Obama, among Latino registered voters. Some 55 percent of the respondents said Obama was “the better candidate” for Latinos, compared to 11 percent for McCain. The survey was conducted from June 9 to July 13.

It was part of the center’s Sept. 18 report on how Latinos view U.S. immigration enforcement policy. That report, among other things, revealed that 65 percent of Latino registered voters identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 26 percent identify with or lean toward Republican Party – the widest gap in the last decade.

What’s worrisome for McCain is that Latino voters are expected to play a pivotal role November — especially in three Southwest states: New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. Latino voters are at least 20 percent of the electorate in Colorado and Nevada, and more than 40 percent in New Mexico.

To win in November, McCain would need Colorado and Nevada, reliably red states in past elections, as well as New Mexico, which voted for Al Gore in 2000 and Bush in 2004. Obama currently has a wide lead among Latino voters in all three states.

According to a Sept. 10 poll for the NDN, a Democratic policy organization, Obama led McCain 62 percent to 20 percent among Latino voters in Nevada; while McCain enjoyed a 46 percent to 37 percent lead among non-Latinos. In New Mexico, Latinos favored the Democrat by 56 percent to 23 percent percent; while non-Latinos backed McCain by 50 percent to 34 percent. The poll found Obama breaking through in Colorado with non-Latino voters — with a narrow 45 percent to 41 percent lead over McCain; and 20 point lead, 56 percent to 26 percent, among Latinos.

Among all voters, Obama appears to be widening his lead in New Mexico — 53 percent to 42 percent, with 5 percent undecided according to a Sept. 19 survey by Public Policy Polling. In Nevada, McCain is leading Obama by 46 percent to 45 percent in a Sept. 22 poll released by Suffolk University based on a survey of 600 likely voters. In Colorado, Rassmusen Reports daily presidential tracking poll released Sept. 24 gave Obama a 49 percent to 47 percent lead over McCain.

McCain’s stepped-up effort to attract Latino voters by reviving his call for a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants still runs the risk of alienating the conservative base of his party — and even some of the mainstream GOP. After it almost scuttled his presidential campaign last summer, McCain had switched gears. By December of 2007, he was saying that he would no longer vote for the comprehensive immigration reform bill that he had co-sponsored.

McCain’s comments Monday were aimed at 50,000 illegal Irish immigrants. But he broadened them to include illegal Latino immigrants. “I knew that if I took on the issue of illegal immigration, it was going to hurt me in my own party,” the Arizona senator said before a largely Irish-American crowd. “We cannot have a continuing situation where there are 12 million people in this country illegally, where there are broken borders.”

His solution was unambiguous: “We will enact comprehensive immigration reform so that we can put people — after they have to do certain things, obviously — give them a path to citizenship in this country as part of an overall immigration reform package. That’s what I’ll do.”

The statement goes considerably beyond his position on immigration reform that appears on his Website — which offers illegal immigrants only “a path to legal residence.”

Employer Penalty Debate

McCain’s seemingly contradictory views on immigration–border security first versus comprehensive reform–mirror the politics of his state and the split within the GOP on the issue. A 2007 state law that severely penalizes employers for hiring illegal immigrants has pitted the moderate and conservative wings of the state GOP against each other.

The employer sanctions law was spearheaded by conservative state Republican Rep. Russell Pearce, who has repeatedly lambasted McCain for his moderate approach to immigration reform. It is considered the harshest such measure in the nation. Judging from anecdotal reports, it’s working: illegal immigrants — there are an estimated 450,000 in Arizona — are leaving the state because they can’t find work.

Under the law, if businesses knowingly hire illegal immigrants, they could lose their state licenses to operate and be permanently shut down. So far, no business has been prosecuted, despite several high-profile raids that have resulted in the arrests of illegal immigrants.

At least five major McCain fund-raisers in Arizona, members of a coalition of moderate Republican business leaders, are seeking either to overturn the law in federal court or amend it via a November ballot initiative. Last week, a three-judge panel in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the state law. The business coalition is expected to appeal that decision to the full appeals court.

The five McCain fund-raisers, who each pledged to raise at least $50,000 or more for his presidential campaign during the primary and general election cycles, are members of the pro-business Wake Up Arizona. The two most prominent are Jim Click, a Tucson automobile dealer who has raised more than $500,000 for McCain, and James LeVecke, owner of Carl Jr. fast-food franchises, who has raised more than $100,000.

The three other bundlers, who have raised at least $50,000 each for McCain’s campaign, are Jerry Colangelo, former owner of the Phoenix Suns and Arizona Diamondbacks; Jeff Moorad, general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, and Francis Najafi, chief executive officer of the Pivotal Group, a Phoenix real estate investment and development company.

Andrew Pacheco, a Republican Phoenix attorney who leads Wake Up Arizona, says that the proposed initiative, titled Stop Illegal Hiring, would strengthen penalties for identity theft, but would abolish the current law’s requirement that all employers must use the federal E-Verify database to determine the legal status of an employee.

He and other supporters of the initiative say it would punish only those who break the law, rather than innocent people employed by a business that could be closed because it hired a couple of illegal immigrants.

“I’m all for immigration in every regard, because I just think that’s where we should be,” said Colangelo, a prominent civic leader as well as a sports icon, told me. “That’s reality. That’s America. That’s how it is, and that’s how it will be.”

He said his support for the initiative has nothing to do with McCain.

The four other McCain bundlers who also support the ballot initiative — Najafi, Moorad, Click and LeVecke — did not return phone calls seeking comment. Pacheco said the McCain campaign has not been involved with group’s legal challenge to the employer sanctions law or the initiative.

The economic effects of the employer sanctions law remains a subject of intense debate. The state’s economy is weighed down by the housing meltdown, which has caused the loss of more than 30,000 construction jobs since August 2007.

Economists don’t expect to have a comprehensive report on the costs and benefits of the law until next summer, well after the November vote. “This is a very, very interesting experiment that Arizona is going through,” said John McDowell, an economics professor at Arizona State University. “No one really understands what the economic impacts are.”

Back in Yuma, Mayor Nelson has developed his own plan to address illegal immigration – one that departs from McCain’s rekindled support for a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Having seen the positive effects of tougher border enforcement, Nelson is convinced that securing the border should be a top priority.

But he also says that the admitting procedures for legal visitors should be made easier. Thousands of Mexican farm workers who legally enter the country every morning to work on Yuma farms often face delays of two hours or longer, Nelson said. In addition, because Mexican residents frequently shop in the United States, they should be allowed to enter the country more quickly. Mexican residents, he said, spend more than $500 million a year in retail stores in Yuma County.

Once the border is secure and admitting procedures are improved, Nelson said, the U.S. should identify and go after illegal immigrants in the country, deporting those who have committed crimes, are unemployed or are on welfare. Those with jobs should be given a work permit to stay as a legal resident, he said.

Nelson then draws a line between his and McCain’s position on this. “There should be no preferential path to citizenship,” the mayor said. “They can apply for citizenship and go through the normal process.”

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