Is McCain Gulling the Immigration Hawks?

The GOP platform talks tough, but the issue appears to be fading


Q: How do you whip members of your party into a white-hot fever, take charge of an issue people feel passionately about, push through policy changes with measurable, practical results, and still end up with half a loaf?

A: By being an immigration hawk in the Republican Party.

The current GOP platform has by and large pleased advocates of tighter illegal immigration enforcement, by being both practically and rhetorically stricter than its 2004 predecessor. Rather than containing a brief standalone section on immigration that calls for "legal, safe, orderly and humane" reforms, this year's much longer model places immigration within the "Defending Our Nation" section and starts out with a blunt statement: "Immigration policy is a national security issue, for which we have one test: Does it serve the national interest?" In place of 2004's oxymoronic coupling of a condemnation of amnesty for in-country illegal workers with a call to bring "workers who currently hold jobs…out of the shadows," the 2008 platform contains a terse: "We oppose amnesty," along with an even-more terse, "English empowers." With calls to expand requirements for the E-Verify system and to complete the border fence (neither of which were in consideration in 2004), the current platform luxuriates in a full paragraph denouncing various favorites of the pro-immigrant left:

The rule of law means guaranteeing to law enforcement the tools and coordination to deport criminal aliens without delay—and correcting court decisions that have made deportation so difficult. It means enforcing the law against those who overstay their visas, rather than letting millions flout the generosity that gave them temporary entry. It means imposing maximum penalties on those who smuggle illegal aliens into the U.S., both for their lawbreaking and for their cruel exploitation. It means requiring cooperation among federal, state and local law enforcement and real consequences, including the denial of federal funds, for self-described sanctuary cities, which stand in open defiance of the federal and state statutes that expressly prohibit such sanctuary policies, and which endanger the lives of U.S. citizens. It does not mean driver's licenses for illegal aliens, nor does it mean that states should be allowed to flout the federal law barring them from giving in-state tuition rates to illegal aliens, nor does it mean that illegal aliens should receive social security benefits, or other public benefits, except as provided by federal law.

About the only tempering of the steel in this year's platform is a call to reform the arcane legal immigration system: "It is a national disgrace that the first experience most new Americans have is with a dysfunctional immigration bureaucracy defined by delay and confusion; we will no longer tolerate those failures." Many immigration hawks would argue that there is no contradiction here, because legal and illegal immigration are clearly separate.

But whether you're a full immigration restrictionist or just a zealot about illegals, the relief at having a stricter platform may still be outweighed by the man at the top of the ticket. Most immigration hawks remain skeptical of Sen. John McCain's (R-Ariz.) conversion to a tougher immigration stance, and they're right to feel that way.

During an endorsement interview at the Los Angeles Times early this year, the candidate repeated his statements about caring for the illegal population ("God's children," in his words) and gave strong indications that while he has "heard the American people" on this issue, that didn't mean he'd changed his own beliefs on immigration. Border and workplace enforcement have measurably toughened under Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (also a reluctant enforcer), and there are hints (noted in a recent study by the Center for Immigration Studies) that the illegal immigration population in the United States is dwindling, yet this does not seem to satisfy restrictionists. "Can you reason people out of a position they haven't been reasoned into?" I asked. McCain shook his head and said sadly, "I don't know." He ended up getting the paper's endorsement, but it's hard to blame immigration hawks for thinking McCain is patronizing them.

Very little of that skepticism is evident among delegates at the Xcel Center this week, however. Most of the people I spoke with had a variation of one Colorado delegate's phrase: "As a candidate I think John McCain takes the security of our borders seriously." That's a surprising level of trust in McCain's tough-on-immigration bona fides, especially considering that the only prominent political figure who has spoken up for immigrants in St. Paul this week was the way-off-the-reservation Jesse Ventura. This could also be an acknowledgment that McCain's Democratic opponent has even less red meat to offer.

Or it could just be recognition that immigration is fading as an issue. The field of Republican hopefuls this election included at least three—California Rep. Duncan Hunter, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, and Texas Rep. Ron Paul—who made immigration a central plank. All failed to get anywhere near the nomination. McCain, the most openly liberal immigration candidate, won handily. There is a wide gap between the numbers Lou Dobbs needs to get good ratings and the numbers a major party candidate needs to secure a nomination. And with a soft economy and more border patrols providing powerful disincentives to enter the country illegally, with comprehensive reform having failed spectacularly, the public seems ready to accept that illegal immigration is a problem that can be managed, not solved—and that it is now being managed.

So, perhaps, are the delegates. But Republicans as a whole haven't lost the ire. "McCain at least has embraced some semblance of enforcement first," said J.D. Hayworth, the former Arizona congressman turned radio host. "But the notion of having the Board of Governors certify that the borders are secure, as he has set forth in several campaign statements, is problematic. Excuse me, but I just don't think I can take Janet Napolitano's or Bill Richardson's word that the borders are secure… Self-deportation is a helpful sign, but the failure to have the government act as a catalyst, act as an enforcer, makes this all very frustrating. We've done this in such fits and starts, with such a lack of resolve, that it's worrying."

Not worrying enough, apparently, to make a difference in the voting. Immigration hawks are stuck without a true presidential friend this year, but a tougher-talking platform will at least provide some comfort.