What John McCain's Immigration Dishonesty Tells Us About the Folly of Comprehensive Reform


The New Yorker this week has published an exhaustive—and exhausting—account of the Senate's attempts thus far to pass comprehensive immigration reform. The article, by Ryan Lizza, focuses on the "Gang of Eight," a bipartisan group of legislative negotiators whose non-negotiable criteria for membership was that participants had to favor "a comprehensive approach to immigration—all the major issues had to be settled in one bill—and they had to support a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants."

Tuck away those groundrules for later.

The lead character in Lizza's story is Gang of Eight GOP leader Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who headed up Republican efforts in the failed 2006 negotiations for bipartisan comprehensive immigration reform (then known as "McCain-Kennedy"), but largely handed the task over in early 2007 to the then-junior Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl so that some other Republican would take conservative flak while McCain tried desperately to fundraise his presidential campaign out of oblivion. The flak-dodging strategy did not work—McCain got hammered by the GOP grassroots as Senate negotiations reached their crescendo, made headlines by yelling "Fuck you!" to Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) at one pivotal moment, and his campaign came within an eyelash of imploding two weeks after the 2007 version of comprehensive immigration reform failed to make it to a final vote.

Note that the previous paragraph is not The New Yorker's gloss on events, but mine. Here's how Lizza describes McCain's evolution on the issue: 

Beginning with his Presidential run against Barack Obama, in 2008, McCain had aligned himself with a wing of the Republican Party he once fought, and retreated from issues he once championed, including immigration reform.

"Retreated" is an incomplete and over-generous description of John McCain's immigration politics in 2007, the implications of which have direct relevance to 2013. In fact, the senator, having narrowly averted seeing his decades-long quest for the White House blown up on the launching pad over this single issue, started openly campaigning against his own bills. After having co-sponsored the DREAM Act three times previously, for example, including earlier that year, McCain opposed it in the fall of 2007, with his aides explaining that "The senator has said 1,000 times since immigration reform failed this summer that he got the message. The American people want the border secured first." 

The Republican Party Platform when John McCain was its presidential nominee stated bluntly that "we oppose amnesty," and contained language such as this:

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.

This is what happens when John McCain's electoral needs outweigh his instinctive aversion to the conservative grassroots: brazen, insincere pandering that makes a mockery out of his claim to talk "straight." The low point of which may have been this May 2010 commercial, during McCain's primary campaign against immigration restrictionist J.D. Hayworth: 

The progression from 2006 Teddy Kennedy partner on immigration to 2010 J.D. Hayworth competitor demonstrates much about what is unseemly in John McCain, but it also tells us plenty about the fundamental flaws with the immigration deal he's brokering this time around. Yes, it's gross when flip-flopping politicians pay unconvincing tribute to "crazy base land." But it also doesn't speak well to either the GOP grassroots or their favorite media outlets that it has become fairly mainstream for Republicans to advocate double-fencing the U.S.-Mexico border and imposing a mandatory federal database-verification system before any American—not just foreigner, American—is allowed by the government to be hired by any employer.

Instead of forthrightly telling their own base that the only way to track each and every foreigner's movements at and within the borders of the United States is to construct a police state, Republican politicians have instead opted for a McCainite dodge—talk the tough language of "securing the border" during primary season, switch to my-grandfather-was-a-hardworking-immigrant stories during the general, and wait until the next electoral lull to head back up the greased pole of comprehensive reform.

As Tim Cavanaugh wrote in a perceptive April 2008 piece, there's a palpable "sense that even when public officials do get serious about illegal immigration, they're really winking at the audience…. Rhetoric about immigration remains as passionate and hysterical as ever. And so government officials respond to the hysteria, but since they know in their hearts that the immigration crisis is a solution in search of a problem, they do so with a vain, affected quality that reveals the very condescension restrictionists find so infuriating."

So it is that the same John McCain who in May 2010 campaigned to "complete the danged fence" is, three years later, saying stuff like this: 

There are some people that, if you and I built the Berlin Wall and had machine guns every fifty yards, then [they would say] that border would not be secure.

On this subject, I certainly agree with John McCain (the 2013 version, anyway) more than double-fencer Michele Bachmann. But I also wish that instead of alternating between pandering and scorn for a conservative base that has become attached to the illusory goal of even 90 percent border security, McCain instead tried to forthrightly win arguments on facts, regardless of his temporal political needs.

Meanwhile, by insisting at every step that this immigration deal be "comprehensive"—that it include a pathway to citizenship for 11 million unauthorized immigrants AND increased border security AND an expanded number of legal visas AND more database-enforcement of visa overstays AND a new temporary-worker program, and so on—negotiators have ensured that basically every possible improvement to the country's pathologically dysfunctional immigration system will be held hostage to a legislative sausage-making process that grows more foul by the day.

So instead of treating the existence of 11 million-plus unauthorized immigrants as a prohibition problem that could be ameliorated with the relaxation of federal controls and expansion of the legal visa regime, legislators continue to treat it as a lawlessness problem requiring unending billions in stepped-up enforcement. Instead of increasing visas for postgraduate students or any other category of desirable workers, negotiators are holding everything up so that Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) can convince enough distrustful conservatives that the Gang of Eight will indeed do the impossible of "securing the border."

When this latest effort fails, maybe then Washington will finally be ready to have an honest conversation about which discrete reforms are desirable, possible, and consistent with the motto "Land of the Free." It will probably require a generation of politicians who don't take their cues from John McCain.