Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Monday denounced those in his party he said have injected "insults" into the immigration debate but refused to back away from his new enforcement-first approach to the issue, telling Hispanic leaders that they must trust he will eventually legalize illegal immigrants.
Mr. McCain told the National Council of La Raza's annual convention that Hispanics should instead be wary of his Democratic rival, Sen. Barack Obama, whom he accused of pandering to labor unions and supporting amendments that changed last year's immigration compromise and helped scuttle the bill.
"I cast a lot of hard votes, as did the other Republicans and Democrats who joined our bipartisan effort," Mr. McCain said. "Senator Obama declined to cast some of those tough votes. He voted for and even sponsored amendments that were intended to kill the legislation."
Mr. McCain is trying to drive a wedge between Mr. Obama and Hispanic voters, who are poised to play a huge role in November's election.
The Republican said he is willing to fight for their support, but told them they will have to trust him on immigration. He has changed his stance on the issue and now calls for enforcement of existing laws before he pushes for the rest of the key provisions, like a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"When I say I remain committed to fair, practical and comprehensive immigration reform, I mean it," he said. "And with all due modesty, I think I have earned that trust."
Democrats said he doesn't deserve the benefit of the doubt anymore.
"He can't change the fact that he walked away from his own comprehensive reform bill to appease the right wing of his party," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, California Democrat, who also disputed Mr. McCain's attack on Mr. Obama, pointing out that Republicans praised Mr. Obama for helping last year.
Immigration rights advocates rejected the charge that Mr. Obama's amendments hurt the bill, saying some of those votes were designed to improve it.
Mr. McCain is no stranger to NCLR, having spoken to its national convention repeatedly and having twice won NCLR's Capital Award.
But he faced a harsh questioning from the audience. One member asked him to sign an executive order to stop immigration raids and another told him to stop building up border security. Mr. McCain refused, saying he would enforce the nation's laws and that border security was necessary to stop drug trafficking as well.
After the 2007 immigration bill failed, Mr. McCain co-sponsored several enforcement-first measures, and now says that must come first. He said border state governors should certify security before a guest-worker program can be enacted and illegal immigrants can be legalized.
"I don't want to fail again to achieve comprehensive immigration reform. We must prove we have the resources to secure our borders and use them, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States," he said.
By insisting that border enforcement and a path to citizenship happen in sequence rather than together, Mr. McCain disappointed his hosts and other immigration rights advocates, who said a security-first approach means the government will continue what Hispanics see as a "reign of terror" in workplace enforcement raids.
Juan Salgado, executive director of the Instituto del Progreso Latino in Chicago, said even as a Democrat he used to be a fan of Mr. McCain, but called his enforcement-first stance a betrayal of the spirit of last year's bill.
"He knows better than anybody that comprehensive reform is the whole package. It's the border security with it; there's no other way to do it that doesn't wreak complete havoc," he said.
Where Mr. Obama was received enthusiastically, Mr. McCain was received politely, with the exception of an early interruption by antiwar protesters.
But the Republican did some things Mr. Obama did not at the NCLR convention: He took questions from the audience and criticized those he said used harsh rhetoric in the immigration debate "to denigrate the contributions of Hispanics to our great country. I denounced those insults then, and I denounce them today."
That remark won him a strong round of applause, exceeded only when he tossed his microphone from the stage so a man could ask his question.
Mr. McCain criticized Mr. Obama for not taking questions or meeting him face to face at the convention.
"I asked Senator Obama to have a town hall meeting, to come here with me and share the same stage, to respond to your questions," Mr. McCain said. "And yet he has refused to do that."
On Sunday, Mr. McCain's advisers gave details about how the senator would achieve his border security pledge, saying his goals were laid out in two measures he sponsored with Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, and other senators after the immigration bill collapsed last year.
The measures - one was an amendment attached to the Senate's homeland security spending bill and the other was a stand-alone bill that was never put to a vote - call for 700 miles of fencing in addition to 300 miles of vehicle barriers, establishing mandatory jail time for illegal immigrants and mandating an employer verification system.
Those mandates go far beyond what President Bush has accomplished on enforcement.
Douglas Holtz-Eakin, Mr. McCain's top domestic policy adviser, said it is not clear whether such a plan will require new legislation or whether Mr. McCain can use existing authority.
"We've got to re-evaluate where we are when he sets foot in office," Mr. Holtz-Eakin said.
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