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Maverick Hits Back on Immigration

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- True to his reputation as a maverick, Sen. John McCain is obviously fed up with the jabs he's taking from conservatives on the immigration issue. And he's hitting back -- hard.

It's about time. Since the beginning of this debate, McCain has been both correct and courageous. But now he has made it clear that he's not going to be anyone's punching bag.

McCain is correct about the need for comprehensive immigration reform as opposed to what's behind door No. 2: the "faith-based" enforcement-only approach of building walls, hoping illegal immigrants self-deport and calling it a day. Congress did something similar with immigration reform in 1996, and -- as Sen. Sam Brownback noted in last week's presidential debate -- all we have to show for it is a population of illegal immigrants nearly twice as large now as it was then.

And McCain is courageous for confronting the nativist fringe of his own party, telling voters what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear, and challenging other candidates to either lead or get out of the way. If they don't like the bipartisan Senate compromise that he helped craft, they can suggest something better, McCain tells them -- provided that whatever they have in mind can get through Congress.

McCain zeroed in on one of his most vocal critics, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. On immigration, as on other hot-button issues, Romney has held nearly as many positions as there are days in the week. Recently, McCain told the Miami Chamber of Commerce that voters should come down hard on candidates who find it easier to criticize the solutions of others than to offer solutions of their own. While the Arizonan didn't mention Romney by name, the McCain campaign made clear it was Romney the senator was criticizing.

"To want the office so badly that you would intentionally make our country's problems worse might prove you can read a poll or take a cheap shot, but it hardly demonstrates presidential leadership," McCain told the group.

"Pandering for votes on this issue, while offering no solution to the problem, amounts to doing nothing. And doing nothing is silent amnesty."

Remember that phrase. Silent amnesty. McCain is right again. If Congress ultimately fails to enact meaningful immigration reform, the world won't end for illegal immigrants. They'll still wake up at 4 the next morning and go to work just like they did the day before. Nothing will change. No one will be fined or brought into the system, or held accountable in any way. That's amnesty.

And that's where we are now. The bill is all but dead, having stalled in the Senate. The trouble began when senators approved -- by one vote -- a labor-friendly amendment by Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., that put a five-year "sunset" on the plan to bring in 200,000 temporary guest workers annually. That put at risk the support of business groups and may have played a role in unraveling the deal. If so, let the record show that the deathblow came not from the right as many expected, but from the left.

In addition to Romney, McCain also continues to jab at the incendiary Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., an illegal-immigration foe who has been tagged a nativist and a "know-nothing" by fellow Republicans. Let Tancredo talk, and you can see why.

Let me be clear. There is nothing inherently racist or nativist about opposing illegal immigration. There are plenty of good people who just want secure borders and who could care less about the culture or language of whoever is coming across the border.

Then there is Tancredo, who speaks "code" fluently and loves to hit cultural alarm buttons. Whereas other opponents of illegal immigration stress that they have no problem with legal immigrants, not so Tancredo. The way he sees it, if you come to the United States from somewhere else -- legally or illegally, skilled or low-skilled, from Mexico or Madagascar -- you're the problem and you're not welcome, at least until we assimilate those who are already here. As Tancredo said during the debate, he wants a moratorium on all immigration "until we no longer have to press 1 for English and 2 for any other language."

Gee, what "other language" do you suppose he's talking about?

McCain blasted Tancredo for that sort of rhetoric, describing it as "beyond my realm of thinking."

Be grateful for that.

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 Ruben Navarrette
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