Politics & Policy

For John McCain, the Immigration Debate Before the Debate

What happened before the CNN/YouTube show.

Clemson, South Carolina — Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani had an intense, and sometimes revealing, exchange about immigration during the CNN YouTube debate Wednesday night. But what was it about? Putting aside the incendiary accusations, the core question wasn’t about sanctuary cities or sanctuary mansions — subjects on which each man distorted the other’s record. And it wasn’t about controlling the borders, which every candidate on the stage advocated. Rather, it was about what to do with the estimated 12 to 15 million immigrants already in the United States illegally.

Giuliani maintained that as mayor of New York, his administration reported every “illegal immigrant that New York City could find that either committed a crime or was suspected of a crime.” The implication was that he didn’t worry about the rest. Romney countered that, “The idea that they reported any illegal alien that committed a crime — how about the fact that the people who are here illegally have violated the law? They didn’t report everybody they found that was here illegally.” Romney didn’t advocate deporting those illegals; instead, he suggested saying to them, “We’re not going to give you benefits, other than those required by the law, like health care and education.”

The exchange pointed to the lingering and fundamental disagreements among Republicans about policy toward immigrants here illegally. Deny them some benefits? Ignore them? Deport them? Put them on a road to legalization, or amnesty, depending on your point of view? There seems little doubt that the Romney-Giuliani matchup left lots of Republican viewers dissatisfied.

That exchange was seen by more than a million people. But earlier in the day, here in South Carolina, in a conversation witnessed by perhaps 200 or 300 people, John McCain dealt with those fundamental questions, without the fireworks, without the oppo research, and without Anderson Cooper calling time. A conversation between McCain and a student named David — a talk that covered topics from deportation to “jobs American’s won’t do” — revealed the differences between some Republican candidates and some in the GOP base in a way that CNN and YouTube just couldn’t do. Given that almost no one saw it, it’s worth quoting at length.

After McCain’s opening remarks, David, who appeared to be of Asian heritage, rose to ask why the senator wasn’t tougher on illegal immigrants. “I’m just curious as to how any politician in America can support any sort of reward for illegal immigrants other than straight deportation,” David said, “considering the fact that there are legal immigrants out there who have waited years and years just to obtain green cards…They’ve waited patiently in line only to see illegal immigrants come and then basically get rewarded for not obeying the law.”

“Your position is correct,” McCain said. “But the reason why most Americans want border security is that they want to cut off the flow of people coming to this country illegally, and then address the issue of the need for a temporary worker program.”

“I believe there is [such a need]. If you ask the governor of Mississippi who rebuilt the Gulf Coast, he’ll tell you it’s the Hispanic worker. He’ll tell you that. It’s just a fact. And there are jobs that Americans will not do in this country. And so if you accept that thesis, then you should have a legal, temporary worker program for people who receive biometric tamper-proof documents, their names entered into an electronic employment verification system, and anybody that hires someone who doesn’t have that should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. So you and I are not in disagreement. But I do believe we need a temporary worker program. I think most economists would say that that’s it.”

McCain continued: “Now, on the disposition of people who have come here illegally. Anyone who has come here recently, within X number of years, I agree with you. What about the 80 year-old grandmother who has been here literally all her life, whose son or grandson is fighting in Iraq? I’m not interested in calling them up and telling them we’re deporting their grandmother. She can pass the naturalization, she can take the test, she can do all the things necessary to become a good citizen.”

“And the other thing is, the reason why I mentioned that, is you’ll have to explain to me how you round up 12 million people. There’s not 12 million pairs of handcuffs in America. So we’ve got to secure the borders to stop the flow of people coming into this country illegally, and then devise a temporary worker program that works so that people come to work and then go back to the country they came from. If they want to become citizens, they go through the normal application process for a green card, etc., but that’s separate from a temporary worker program. And then you’re going to have to address the issue of the 12 million people who are here illegally…”

As he finished, McCain invited David to ask a follow-up question. “I agree that it’s impossible to round up 12 million immigrants and that the logistics of dealing with all that is virtually impossible,” David said. “The issue with the grandmother is just that it’s still pushing the philosophy that if you break the law, well, [that’s OK]. My family emigrated here and they had to wait in line…So I just don’t see it — ”

“I understand that,” McCain said. “You don’t have to worry about additional people coming, if you secure the borders. You see my point? You cut off the flow. There’s no job for them cause you set up a temporary worker program. You seal the borders so they can’t get in. Then those people can be judged as I said before.”

“I think our different thesis here is you believe they’ll keep coming illegally. I think our obligation is to stop it, because you’re never going to address the issue as long as people keep coming here illegally. You see my point?”

No, David said. “I’m not worried people in the future, because I believe that we can seal the border. I’m worried about people who have broken the law. I want to see them punished.”

“As I said, they cannot be rewarded for breaking the law,” McCain answered. “But if you’re prepared to send an 80 year-old grandmother who’s been here 70 years back to some country, then frankly you’re not quite as compassionate as maybe I am. I want to stop the flow of illegals into this country, but you have to look at the additional situations, in my view.”

At that point, the town hall moved on to other questions. Later, McCain boarded a private plane for Florida and the CNN/YouTube show. But his exchange with David left hanging the immigration questions that Republicans still haven’t resolved.

Byron York is a former White House correspondent for National Review.

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