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McCain's Stand & Bilbray's Demagoguery

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- Despite some earlier evidence to the contrary, John McCain is careful about the company he keeps.

When the senator from Arizona traveled to Liberty University a few weeks ago to appear at a commencement with the Rev. Jerry Falwell -- a man he once labeled as one of the "agents of intolerance'' -- I worried that the conductor on the Straight Talk Express had lost his way.

Then came news last week that McCain had canceled an appearance at a San Diego fundraiser for former Rep. Brian Bilbray, the Republican nominee in a nationally watched June 6 runoff election to replace Randy "Duke'' Cunningham, who is in prison for taking bribes.

I wouldn't call Bilbray an agent of intolerance. He's more an agent of opportunism. While in Congress from 1995 to 2001, and later as a lobbyist and national co-chairman of the anti-immigrant outfit, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, Bilbray has milked the immigration issue dry.

Bilbray's opponent is Democrat Francine Busby, who supports the bipartisan immigration reform plan that McCain helped hammer out with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and which serves as the heart of the legislation approved by the Senate last week.

For that, Busby has been hammered by Bilbray, who opposes attempts to offer legal status to any illegal immigrant in the United States.

"No amnesty" is a reasonable position. What it is not is a solution.

Hard-liners such as Bilbray are good at sound bites and bumper-sticker slogans. They just don't have a good answer to the big question: What do we do with the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants?

All they have is this quaint theory that if we crack down on employers, let local cops enforce immigration law, or put troops on the border -- all of which Bilbray supports -- illegal immigrants will find it so inhospitable here that they will simply self-deport.

It could happen -- as soon as hardened criminals self-arrest, self-convict and self-imprison.

Bilbray also wants to build a 2,000-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, and deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants -- unworkable and un-American ideas that even the House Republican leadership wanted nothing to do with.

In fact, Bilbray brags that while in Congress, he wrote legislation to limit "birthright citizenship" only to the children of U.S. citizens and legal residents and combat what right-wingers call "anchor babies.''

The assumption is that people risk their lives to have babies on U.S. soil so the infants are first in line at the welfare office. That's dumb. If you want to know what keeps illegal immigrants in this country, it's not anchor babies. It's "anchor jobs'' provided by U.S. employers, many of them Republicans.

Big-name Republicans have stumped for Bilbray. They included Vice President Dick Cheney, even though Bilbray had told USA Today that the Bush administration was permitting illegal immigration and that President Bush himself "ought to be investigated for not enforcing immigration laws on employers.''

Enter John McCain, who was scheduled to speak at a breakfast fundraiser for Bilbray last week that was supposed to raise $65,000 for what is now a close race with Busby.

Exit John McCain. In a last-minute e-mail to the Bilbray campaign, a McCain spokesman noted that the two men "disagree on some of the issues related to immigration reform.'' And, the spokesman said, McCain wanted to "avoid distracting'' from the event.

Bilbray supporters called the snub petty and vindictive.

It wasn't. It was principled, honest and morally consistent. How could McCain have appeared at a fundraiser for someone who has tried to get political mileage from blasting a major McCain initiative? Talk about awkward. The senator was right to stay away.

As for Bilbray, there is something about how he toys with the immigration issue that creeps me out. Maybe it's that he feeds the culture clash, as when he put this question to voters: "Is it important enough to make sure your grandchildren learn Spanish because they want to -- or because they have to?'' Or that he's more showman than statesman, as when he sued California's universities for allegedly discriminating against his college-age children by requiring them to pay out-of-state tuition (since they lived in Virginia) while allowing illegal immigrants (who lived in California) to pay in-state.

It's fine to be an opponent of illegal immigration. But somewhere along the line, Brian Bilbray became a crusader. Then, he morphed into a zealot. And, frankly, on this explosive issue, Congress has enough of those already.


(c) 2006, The San Diego Union-Tribune

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 Ruben Navarrette
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