10:39 AM CDT on Tuesday, July 8, 2008
By TODD J. GILLMAN / The Dallas Morning News
WASHINGTON – John McCain and Barack Obama will happily engage on Iraq, taxes or health policy. The economy? Anytime, anywhere. But when it comes to immigration, neither is enthusiastic to talk, even though they largely agree on the solutions.
Both candidates view Hispanics as a vital target audience. But immigration policy is fraught with political risk.
On the right, hardliners remain suspicious of Mr. McCain, even after he pledged to focus on border security and suspended his push for a guest worker program and other elements of a comprehensive reform. In the Democratic camp, most labor unions also resist policies that would bring in more foreign workers.
"There is no benefit. They've said as much as they can safely say about it," said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute. "There's no reason to agitate any part of their constituencies."
That's one reason activists on both sides of the immigration fight are watching closely as the candidates navigate a three-week gantlet of appearances before Hispanic groups – wooing those voters without alienating others.
"I do not feel they've addressed it directly. We need a lot more from them," said Rosa Rosales of San Antonio, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "They have not been very specific on the plan of action."
Today's audience is the LULAC convention in Washington. Next Monday, they'll be in San Diego at the National Council of La Raza. They spoke 10 days ago to Latino officials.
The presumptive nominees support so-called comprehensive reform, as do most Hispanics. Both back tighter borders, a crackdown on workers and employers who break the law, and a new guest worker program to match demand for labor with job-seekers. Both voted to build 700 miles of fence along the southern border. Both would let most illegal workers stay and apply for citizenship, with some penalties – a policy denounced as amnesty by critics.
The issue never rose to the top tier in the Democratic primaries. On the GOP side, Mr. McCain survived by denouncing his own years-long push for a reform package. At a January debate, he even said he wouldn't vote for his own 2006 package, co-authored with Sen. Edward Kennedy.
Still, many conservatives remain skeptical, and he may face a fight this summer when the GOP platform is rewritten. The current plank supports comprehensive reform, in keeping with President Bush's views, and Mr. McCain's from 2004.
As president of the Texas Vegetable Association, J Carnes keeps close tabs on the issue. He favors a guest worker program and predicts both candidates will be forced to offer details soon.
"If it wasn't for the Hispanic vote, I don't think either candidate would bring it up at all," said Mr. Carnes, president of Winter Garden Produce in Uvalde, which grows onions, cabbage, broccoli and melons.
Business leaders are frustrated at the logjam in Washington, which has pinched industries such as agriculture, construction and hospitality that depend on immigrant labor.
"We need the workers. That's the deal. And we need them in a way that's legal," said Bill Hammond, president of the Texas Association of Business. "There are labor shortages right now."
But analysts and advocates don't expect either candidate to buy ads highlighting the issue, nor to spend precious time visiting border crossings, lettuce farms or meatpacking plants. High gas prices, a housing crisis and the Iraq war have eclipsed immigration as campaign issues.
"There's as much frustration and resentment as there ever was," said Dan Stein, president of the Federation of American Immigration Reform, which pushes for tighter borders and an end to illegal immigration. "They haven't approached this issue with nearly the same rigor and detail that they have health care or Middle East policy. It's all platitudes."
'Poison pill' vote
The latest round began with back-to-back speeches to the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. Mr. Obama emphasized support for a "pathway to citizenship" for the 12 million people here illegally. Republicans tweaked him for helping torpedo a bill last year by pushing "poison pill" provisions.
Mr. McCain sent mixed signals, reiterating his security-first pledge while calling comprehensive reform his "top priority yesterday, today, and tomorrow."
Illegal-immigration foes weren't impressed. "He speak with forked tongue," Mr. Stein said. "We've all tangled with McCain for years. We know where his heart lies."
Adrian Rodriguez of Plano, LULAC's vice president for Texas and nearby states, called it understandable for candidates to be cautious.
"If they take one side, they alienate the other side. People know right now they have to kind of tiptoe through the middle," he said. "But at some point they're going to have to come out and say, 'This is what I believe.' "
AT A GLANCE: Hispanics' choice
Barack Obama, 59 percent
John McCain, 29 percent
SOURCE: Gallup Poll, telephone interviews from March to June with 4,604 Hispanic registered voters, age 18 and older. Margin of error plus or minus 3 percentage points.