- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2008

SAN DIEGO | Barack Obama” href=”/themes/?Theme=Barack+Obama” >Sen. Barack Obama received a rock-star welcome Sunday from the nation’s largest Hispanic rights group, telling them they are the critical swing group in November’s presidential election and promising a renewed effort to pass an immigration bill during his first year in office.

“This election is nothing less than a test of our allegiance to the American dream,” the Democrats’ presumptive presidential nominee told the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) convention, in a speech in which he also proposed a tax credit to help small businesses pay for health insurance for their employees.

Janet Murguia, president and chief executive of NCLR, heaped praise on Mr. Obama for both his leadership on immigration and his personal outreach to NCLR. It was a boon for the senator from Illinois, who is sparring with presidential opponent John McCain” href=”/themes/?Theme=John+McCain” >Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, over who accomplished more on last year’s immigration bill.

She said Mr. Obama “stood with us” in the immigration fight, and said Mr. Obama also has made strong efforts to court Hispanic leaders, telling the convention that Mr. Obama personally sought out NCLR in 2005 and visited Ms. Murguia at NCLR’s office soon after he was sworn in as senator.

“What stuck with me was that a newly elected U.S. senator came to us, to our home. That had never, ever happened before, or since for that matter,” she said.

Mr. McCain’s campaign has tried to drive a wedge between Mr. Obama and Hispanic voters, arguing that the Democrat worked against the 2007 bill by voting to halve the number of future immigrant workers that would be allowed.

Rosario Marin, a U.S. treasurer during President Bush’s first term, said the bill was killed by “people like Senator Obama casting votes that eventually unraveled the immigration package that [Mr. McCain] had so carefully put together.”

That bill was defeated when a majority of senators, including 15 Democrats, voted to filibuster it. Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama voted against the filibuster.

Mr. McCain was the author of a 2006 bill that was the precursor to last year’s measure, but now says the government must prove it can secure the borders first as part of any immigration bill. Since the 2007 bill’s failure, Mr. McCain has sponsored and supported several enforcement-first measures, and on Sunday his top domestic policy adviser, Douglas J. Holtz-Eakin, said Mr. McCain, as president, could take steps to secure the border without the approval of Congress.

“They require no new legislation, the money is there, the authority is there,” Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.

Mr. McCain has said his goal is to have border-state governors certify that the U.S.-Mexico boundary is secure before moving to the broader immigration issue.

Brian Rogers, a campaign spokesman, said Mr. McCain’s support for $3 billion in border security funding and his co-sponsorship of an enforcement-only bill along with Republican Sens. Jon Kyl of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, John Cornyn of Texas and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina last August demonstrate his priorities. That bill never passed.

“Should existing appropriations and budget authority prove insufficient to secure our borders to meet the standards of certification he has articulated, John McCain would pursue further legislation to assure his commitment is kept,” Mr. Rogers said.

Several attendees at NCLR’s convention said Mr. McCain will have a difficult time trying to appeal to both Hispanic voters and conservatives who want to see stricter border enforcement.

In Sunday’s speech, Mr. Obama said that by embracing the “enforcement-first” approach, Mr. McCain has now in effect “abandoned his courageous stance” he took to support last year’s bill.

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