The Washington Times - June 28, 2008, 12:17PM

John McCain this morning told the National Association of Latino Election and Appointed Officials he supported the 1986 immigration amnesty, but in fact he voted against the bill and was a critic, arguing it was actually too tough on immigrants and Hispanics.

The 1986 bill granted amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants in the country and promised new security measures to crack down on illegal immigration. The amnesty went through, but the security measures were rarely enforced.

Speaking today to NALEO, he brought up that bill: “In 1986, we passed a law that said we would secure the borders and gave amnesty to a couple, three million people. I supported that legislation way back then.”

Far from supporting it, McCain didn’t only vote against the bill, he used charged language to criticize it. His hometown newspaper, the Arizona Republic, quoted him as saying the bill’s requirements for employers to verify workers “would institutionalize discrimination.” He said employers would refuse to hire Hispanics to avoid running afoul of the law.

And he happened to be running for the Senate that year, and both he and his opponent opposed the bill, calling it racist during their debates. Here’s the Republic’s coverage from one of the debates between McCain and Democrat Richard Kimball, from the Oct. 29, 1986, edition:

“Both candidates agreed that the new immigration law is racist because of sanctions against employers who hire illegal aliens.

McCain said that in order to avoid possible legal problems, employers would not hire a Hispanic if there were any questions about citizenship. Kimball said Mexico’s economic problems must be solved before illegal immigration can be dealt with effectively.”

In the years after it, McCain was quite clear about his opposition, including sponsoring bills to undo those employer sanctions.

“Employer sanctions represents a failed, albeit well intended, experiment in illegal immigration control. But the facts are clear, the experiment has failed,” he said on the Senate floor Sept. 20, 1991, as he cosponsored one of those bills.

McCain has been criticized for being all over the map on immigration and pandering to different groups. His recent closed meeting with Hispanics in Chicago only upped that criticism.

The McCain camp says he was talking broadly today about “his support for a comprehensive solution,” and says his opposition to the 1986 bill is “a point of record.

But McCain specifically mentioned “legislation” and the issue in 1986 was not comprehensive, it was amnesty. This is a signature issue for him, and one on which he should know his own record.

Stephen Dinan, national political correspondent, The Washington Times