In a way he did look a little out of place that spring night almost exactly a year ago.
It had been quite a coup for the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform to lure the senior senator from Arizona to a church hall that opened into the Bronx by one door, and into Yonkers by another.
“Senator Kennedy and I worry that strange things can happen at conference so we want it to be open and bipartisan,” McCain told the cheering crowd at the time.
He was referring to the then anticipated negotiations between the Senate and House of Representatives on the McCain/Kennedy immigration reform bill.
What has become clear since that evening at St. Barnabas is that even stranger things can happen on the presidential campaign trail.
“Immigration is probably a more powerful issue here than almost anyplace that I’ve been,” McCain said a few days ago in Iowa, a state that, according to a March 20 New York times report, has become “something of a laboratory for the politics of immigration.”
Immigration was a powerful issue at St. Barnabas too, but right now the Hawkeye State would appear to have the whip hand — and McCain’s greater attention.
And that means a turn of events on Capitol Hill where Senator Edward Kennedy is lately bearing a more singular burden as the effort to forge a deal on comprehensive immigration reform gears up for a Senate debate, now expected in the second half of May.
McCain, it is to be believed, is still a supporter of reform though just what kind, and to what degree, is now open to question.
Still, even if his name is not attached to a Senate bill there has been nothing from McCain’s mouth or his camp to suggest that he would not vote, or help muster Republican support for one.
At the same time, McCain has recently indicated that any bill that draws his support would likely have to contain a “touchback” provision. This would mean that undocumented and illegal immigrants would first have to leave the U.S. in order to get back in and start the long process of becoming legal.
This is not an idea likely to appeal to thousands of undocumented Irish, many of whom have already been waiting years for a chance to secure legal status.
“It is causing fear amongst many of the undocumented Irish living and
working in the U.S. because they are afraid that if they leave U.S. soil they
will not be allowed back into the country,” said Fine Gael spokesman on emigrant affairs, Paul Connaughton, in a recent statement.
On the last day of February, John McCain found himself back in New York to attend an event hosted by the Irish American Republicans lobby group.
Speaking to reporters he spoke of a “window of opportunity” for reform that would likely last just a few months. After that, he said, it would be 2009 before Congress would get back to the issue. He gave the chances of success this year a rating of better than fifty/fifty.
A week later, McCain’s name topped an op-ed in the Union-Leader newspaper in Manchester, New Hampshire.
“The truth is that our nation’s porous borders and failed immigration policies are a national disgrace, adversely affecting both our economic prospects and national security. A comprehensive immigration control plan that works is long overdue,” McCain wrote in the March 6 published op-ed.
“The need to bring illegal immigrants out of hiding and end the de facto amnesty that is the status quo is more important than ever in this post-9/11 era of terrorist threat. But this effort must never entail giving away citizenship to those who have broken our laws. Rather it should require those who voluntarily come forward to undertake the hard work of reparation and assimilation that we expect.
“Legitimate status,” McCain continued, “must be earned by paying stiff fines and back taxes, undergoing criminal and security checks, passing English and civics tests, remaining employed for six years before going to the back of the line to achieve legal permanent residence status, and adhering to other strict requirements.”
Tough words, but McCain’s position in the op-ed was not a radical departure from anything he had said in the previous twelve months.
And it truth, he has yet to definitively outline such a departure though the New York Times reported late last week that McCain had “distanced himself” from Senator Kennedy after facing a “barrage of criticism” from conservatives over his support for the legalization of illegal immigrants.
McCain’s shifting position is almost certainly linked to the move by a number of large states to cram their primaries into early February of next year, now just ten months away.
This, in all likelihood, has significantly cut into McCain’s own concept of a “window of opportunity.” In terms of Republican primary voters, McCain is already facing people who are making up their minds over how they will cast their ballots in early 2008.
In the Republican presidential field, McCain is being led in early polls by Rudolph Giuliani.
Giuliani broadly supports comprehensive immigration reform but has yet to be exposed to heartland voter opinions on the issue. He, too, will be heading for Iowa, scene of next January’s caucus votes, in the coming days.
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who is trailing McCain among likely GOP voters, recently traveled to McCain’s home state to tout his opposition to comprehensive reform.
This was at odds with Romney’s stated opinions just a couple of years ago but his shift is just another example of how “the complications” of presidential politics — as Democratic National Committee chairman Howard Dean recently put it to the Echo — can turn a candidate away from stances that once seemed rock solid.
On McCain’s Senate Web site at the end of last week 57 entries turned up when the word “immigration” was typed into the search box. The most recently dated was the op-ed in the Union Leader.
That opinion piece could well turn out to be a high water mark for McCain the comprehensive reformer in the McCain/Kennedy mold.
The Web site also had an opinion poll question. It was: “Do you want more control over the viewing options in your home and your monthly cable bill.”
The idea of control also applies to the nation’s borders and it clearly weighs heavily on McCain’s mind. It occupied the bulk of the Union Leader op-ed. But if there is to be any significant change in the fortunes of illegal and undocumented immigrants inside these borders John McCain’s support in the Senate for a comprehensive reform bill remains crucial.
But what if there is more than one bill? The New York Times reported March 23 that Senator Arlen Specter, ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee, was drawing up his own proposals separately from Senator Kennedy, who sits on the same panel and chairs its immigration subcommittee.
And in its March 20 report from the stump in Iowa the paper focused on a Senator McCain that appears to be thinking differently than he was a year ago.
“What I’ve tried to point out is we couldn’t pass the legislation,” McCain told the Times in clear reference to McCain/Kennedy 2006.
“So we have to change the legislation so it can pass. And I’ve been working with Senator Kennedy, but we’ve also been working with additional senators, additional House members.”
If reform becomes an entirely partisan issue in the Senate, McCain is certain to stick with his party.
Such a scenario would be a most serious setback for a cause that, more than most, requires bipartisan support to ensure passage of politically viable legislation.