John McCain and Barack Obama told a major Hispanic organization Tuesday that they remain committed to passing comprehensive immigration legislation, despite its defeat in Congress and unpopularity with voters who prefer a heavier emphasis on border security.
Their remarks to the League of United Latin Citizens came before the 79th convention of the 115,000-member Hispanic group, but the presumptive Republican and Democratic Party nominees, respectively, were reaching out to a broader group: the 9 million or more Latinos who are expected to vote in November.
As the Democratic nominee, Obama should benefit more from the Hispanic vote. The Pew Hispanic Center found last year that 57 percent of registered Hispanic voters aligned with Democrats, while only 23 percent aligned with Republicans, a gap that increased significantly after congressional Republicans quashed legislation that would have given millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
But two factors could complicate the partisan outlook.
First, in Democratic primaries, Hispanic voters preferred Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to Obama, and Democrats have some concerns that traditional tensions between Hispanic and black communities could affect the general election.
Second, McCain's record as one who crossed his party in favor of immigration restructuring with a path to citizenship endeared him to some Hispanic voters.
But the Arizona senator has moved in recent months to shore up his standing with his party's base by emphasizing border security over citizenship and suggesting that he wouldn't push as aggressively for the changes he advocated in the past.
In his speech, McCain lamented that his efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration bill – one that dealt “practically and humanely with those who came here, as my ancestors did, to build a better life for their families, without excusing the fact they came illegally” – failed after opponents complained that it would grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.
“Many Americans, with good cause, did not believe us when we said we would secure our borders, and so we failed in our efforts,” McCain said. “We must prove to them that we can and will secure our borders first, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States.”
Obama, who spoke later, accused McCain of abandoning his own “courageous stance” on immigration to run for the White House.
The Illinois senator vowed to make immigration a top priority in his first year as president.
He said an immigration bill must do more than secure the borders and crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.