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


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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.

NEXT: Afghans Assume Responsibility for Their Country's Security

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  1. Oh Reason still thinks that pro-Immigration Reps and Dems want reforms that aren’t horrible.

    1. Am I the only one who doesn’t give a shit about this bill one way or the other?

      1. I hope it dies. Piecemeal reform is the way to go, and the primary issue should be the ability to immigrate here, not citizenship. They’re just playing politics.

        1. Well, I’m convinced this is a fuck up (despite not following it at all), but I’m also convinced that anything else they’d do would be a fuck up, so I can’t work up the energy to think it matters.

  2. My immigration proposal: legalize every illegal immigrant with zero path to citizenship except for those who came over as minors and make legal immigration easy going forward.

    1. This. And stop forcing employers to document their employees beyond what is needed for the task itself. Sometimes just a name and an account number to send the check to should suffice. Many people with checkered pasts and that includes a fair number of immigrants only need a chance to start over in a new place to become fully functioning members of a community.

      1. And I don’t care if that would be inconvenient to tax collectors and law enforcement. Both institutions are far more inconvenient to the social order than the worst troublemakers that live on the margins of society.

      2. B-but they’re not lily-white exemplars of the master race!


      3. But…but…FELONIES!!!

    2. Yeah, great for the immigrants. But what’s in it for us? /politicians

    3. I agree with this. All living here illegally get a diminished version of Lawful Permanent Residence, and can never be naturalized as citizens, and also can never sponsor any relatives for immigration. Their illegal entry should have consequences.

      Of course, another Democrat Senate 20 years from now might repeal this prohibition, so it would need to have teeth like requiring a 2/3 vote majority to repeal.

      Then make the borders more open so that people can enter legally, and from all over the world, not just Mexico.

      1. The trouble is that just plain legislation has no mechanism to require anything other than just plain legislation to amend or repeal. It could be done by Constitutional amendment; good luck.

  3. My immigration proposal: issue anyone who passes a background check an unlimited residence and work visa with the express requirement that it does not offer any path to citizenship and neither its holder nor its holder’s minor children are eligible for any targeted welfare.

    1. Sounds good to me.

    2. Note that, while you hold this visa, you are free to apply for other visas that may offer a path to citizenship. Nor does the existence of this visa preclude handing out green cards to all US advanced degree recipients or the like.

      This is just the minimal free migration and free labor visa that should plainly exist in a free country.

      1. I like it

    3. Sounds good. I just don’t see why citizenship needs to be the issue here.

      1. Yet a “path to citizenship” is the first thing mentioned by the mainstream media.

        That illegal immigrants are asking only for a path to legality is an afterthought.

      2. The Democrats are looking to put another 11 million voters on their rolls. That is the reason why “the path to citizenship” is a deal breaker for the Dems.

        70% of immigrants support the welfare state and are naturally Dem voters.

        Reason is aggressively championing immigration “reform” that will move the Libertarian agenda considerably backwards.

    4. nor its holder’s minor children are eligible for any targeted welfare

      I assume you’re not counting public schools as targeted welfare?

      1. We’ll terminate public schooling as a rider to our bill. Nobody reads it, anyway.

      2. Why do you hate brown children, Nikki?

      3. No, I am not.

        If it’s an investment in the next generation to educate children of citizens, it’s an investment in the next generation to educate children of long-lived residents.

        Show me some evidence that these kids will go back to their home country at age 18 — not beyond belief at all — and we can discuss it.

        And of course education should ideally be privatized yadda yadda yadda.

  4. I eagerly await the day Senator Turkeyneck is buried five feet under.

  5. A moratorium would be comprehensive reform. Let’s try that.

  6. Why would I listen to John McCain? He wasn’t even born in the United States!

    1. ohhhhhh, SNAP!

    2. Give Obama time.

    3. There was a bit of a controversy in the years right after the founding when it was realized by ambassadors and embassy staffers that their children would not be eligible for the office of the presidency. Though it has been resolved under Supreme Court precedent, the decisions have been nothing but a nod and a wink with little substance backing them. The language in the Constitution really should be corrected. But, no, McCain really wasn’t qualified. He was a child of a military satrap, a high ranking officer in the Panama Canal Zone, thus a product of a culture very much alien to our own.

      1. And that is really why his disposition has always seemed like overcompensation on steroids. He isn’t one of us, and never was.

  7. We need someone who really is one of us!

    1. Wow. Top of the internets to you, sir.

  8. Remember when Reason wasn’t some cosmotarian rag that touted the “libertarian bonafides” of Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and Bobby Jindal while saying John Stewart makes good points about gun control?

    They’d cover breaking news like a mistrial being declared in the case of a cop murdering a 7 yo girl on reality TV

    1. Or when they use excuse statist fucks like Vidal, Zinn, and Greenwald because they oppose US foreign policy and the surveillance state yet they get mad at the CSA lovers despite the fact the CSA opposed US foreign policy too.

    2. COZMOS

    3. Maybe in mistrialing the manslaughter charge they can gnab him on murder, second degree?


    Can’t let that taxpayer funding go to waste.

    1. “starting with breakfast from their in-house chefs”
      Nothing left to cut!

      1. I hope NPR’s vegan listeners note the new plantation has slave cabins hives on the roof.

  10. International Relations Theory in Game of Thrones: Because everything needs to be ruined by politics.

    1. The Personal is the Political remember?

    2. I read that list and then I vomited in rage.

    3. It’s not her[Daenerys] business; it’s not her land, and besides their de rigueur sexism, the slave masters of Astapor have done nothing to harm her interests. But she has decided that the world would be better without slaves, in a loose adaptation of the democratic peace theory, and so has begun sacking cities.

      Though currently dragon-less, Marco Rubio is a willing heir to the neoconservative mantle.

      I would actually have lots of respect for Marco Rubio if he ended his speeches with, “I am the blood of the dragon.”

      Calculating and elaborately golden-haired, they[Lannisters] attack weaker foes because, well … such is the nature of people and states. “Everyone who isn’t us is an enemy,” Cersei says to Joffrey, the future king, channeling Hans Morganthau.

      Allies also don’t mean much to President Obama — neither do enemies.

      Obama is a Lannister. The jokes practically write themselves.

      Robb Stark is a voice in the wilderness. The Lannisters cripple his brother, murder his father and hold at least one of his sisters hostage. So he calls the banners of too few men to shuck off the assumptions of the international system and its bondage of the north.

      Rand Paul, too, has wandered in the wilderness. Scion of a political outlier, he ran for the Senate and won despite the hostility of Mitch McConnell.

      Not sure if this is a compliment, or an invitation for Rand to go get Red Wedding’d.

  11. “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.”

    Wait a minute, one of these things is not like the other.

    E-verify is basically a national ID card – a step on the road to serfdom.

    But a border fence strikes me as quite different. Don’t good fences make good neighbors? The symbolism of a fence freaks some people out so much that they’re supposed to close down their brains.

    But suppose we have the most liberal immigration reform imaginable – short of abolishing national frontiers altogether. Persons with clean records and no diseases are let into the country in exchange for renouncing welfare for themselves and their kids. Very well – how do we *enforce* such a regime? How do we keep out the criminal and welfare-leech elements? A fence seems like the least obstructive method.

    1. The real nail in the fence’s coffin is the reality that it *can’t* work – smugglers are already adept at moving illicit cargo across the border – through, under, and over the walls that do exist. Right in the middle of heavily populated areas that have a strong DHS/CBP presence.

      1. Yep. Fences don’t work. Smuggling actually increases during the construction of a fence, as smugglers can blend in with the work crews.

      2. If you define “work” as reduce to 0%, then yes, fences will not work.

        If you define “work” as reduce to 10%, then fences are quite effective. Ask the Israelis how their ugly border fence has greatly reduced the number of terrorist bombings and attacks.

  12. Glad to see the US get payback from Honduras. Barring a breakdown of epic proportions, it looks like they have wrapped up their tickets to Brazil next year.

    1. Klinsmann is slowly but surely developing a good system. I’m excited for next year.

  13. John McCain has always been dishonest! We know after all these years with John McCain. That McCain will say anything or do anything as long as it’s beneficial to John McCain and John McCain only! McCain lacks the character, credibility and integrity to hold public office. The GOP wants to know what’s wrong with today’s GOP. The answer is simple old, bitter, narrow minded warmongering, white men like John McCain, that is exactly what’s wrong with today’s GOP

    1. Yeah, its those damn *white* men that are the problem!

      fucking racist.

      1. Spoken like a true gook.

      2. Albinos are right behind the Irish in malevolence.

  14. lol, McSame totally cracks me up as usual.

  15. Good article.

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