- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Sen. John McCain said yesterday that Republicans have shed support among Hispanic voters because of the party’s get-tough approach to illegal immigration, but he predicted that his enforcement-then- legalization approach will rebuild those bridges.

Using a Mexican holiday, Cinco de Mayo, as a launching point, Mr. McCain’s presidential campaign announced a Spanish-language Web site (www.johnmccain.com/ espanol), and said the senator from Arizona will speak to this year’s National Council of La Raza convention in San Diego in July to try to court Hispanic voters.

“I believe the majority of the Hispanics share our view that the border must be secured, and the border must be secured first. But they also want us to have an attitude, which I think most Americans do, that these are God’s children, and they must be taken care of, and the issue must be addressed in a humane and compassionate fashion,” Mr. McCain told reporters at an Arizona news conference yesterday.

Hispanic support for President Bush in the 2004 election topped 40 percent by most estimates, but has fallen in the wake of the congressional immigration debate.

Now, nearly a year after the Senate rejected the immigration legalization bill supported by Mr. McCain, Mr. Bush and Democratic leaders, the issue is rising again, but a viable solution seems no closer.

House Democrats want a compromise that would allow more foreign workers for farms, high-tech firms and seasonal businesses, but the Congressional Hispanic Caucus has said it will oppose such a bill unless it also allows for some form of legal status for current illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, a vocal group of conservative Democrats and Republicans is demanding an enforcement-only approach.

Today, the House will hold a hearing on an enforcement bill that would require employers to check a government database known as the E-Verify system before they hire. That bill is sponsored by Rep. Heath Shuler, a North Carolina Democrat who has broken with his party’s general stance on immigration, and is backed by House Republicans who are running a petition drive to try to force a floor vote on the measure.

Yesterday, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services announced it was adding new databases to the E-Verify system to reduce false hits for naturalized citizens whose work-authorization records aren’t up-to-date. That should cut more than half of false hits, agency officials said.

Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has tried to straddle the line on immigration after his support for legalizing illegal immigrants nearly cost him the nomination.

In 2006 and 2007, he was a chief backer, along with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, of a bill to legalize most illegal immigrants and to dramatically boost immigration. Last year, that bill failed when a majority of senators joined a filibuster to block it.

Some opponents said the bill amounted to a lenient “amnesty,” while others called it too harsh.

Mr. McCain said the bill failed because voters didn’t trust the government to handle the security side. Since then, he has said his first priority would be to secure the borders and require border state governors to certify that before turning his attention to a legalization program for the country’s illegal immigrants.

The Democratic National Committee said he will have to choose between enforcement or legalization. The Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, have said they would allow for legalization.

“It’s hard to know what someone’s real vision for our country is when they consistently take every side of the issues,” said DNC spokesman Luis Miranda. “John McCain cannot have it both ways. He cannot pander to the right wing of his party by promising an enforcement-only approach to immigration while telling Hispanics that he supports comprehensive reform.”

Immigration advocates said an enforcement-first approach is still too harsh.

“Anti-immigrant-light is no more acceptable than anti-immigrant,” said Eliseo Medina, international executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, who added that the proper solution was to offer legal status across the board. “Let’s legalize everybody, and then let’s figure out what we need to do to ensure we have a legal program going forward.”

Mr. McCain has acknowledged his close call with voters on this issue in the primaries. Asked whether he feared voter backlash again in the general election, the senator said that’s out of his hands.

“I don’t know, but I can’t worry about that,” he said.

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