The Battle for Immigration Votes

BOTH Senators Barack Obama and John McCain appeared before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) last week. It was a significant occasion, the first opportunity that both men have had to make clear their commitment to immigration reform in the next presidential term.

After months of racist claptrap from Lou Dobbs on CNN and other commentators, it was refreshing to see that neither McCain or Obama were walking away from prior commitments to address the issue of the undocumented during their first term.

No doubt the fact that the Latino vote is critical in several key states is a factor in their decision to pay attention to this issue. Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico are all swing states that can go either way in November.

McCain has a justified reputation among immigration advocates as an honest seeker after a fair solution to the problem. He has a far greater track record on the issue than Obama, and co-sponsored the Kennedy/McCain comprehensive reform bill which, through no fault of his, went down to defeat in two separate occasions in the Senate.

McCain addressed that failure in his remarks to NALEO and stated that eventual passage of a bill combined with greater border security, "will be my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow."

That is still a brave stance from a man who felt the lash of disaffected Republican voters who are broadly against any solution for the undocumented that involves a path to legalization.

During the GOP primary McCain had to tack to the right on the issue in order to somewhat appease the hard-core base. Now that he is the candidate it is a measure of McCain's mettle that he is still prepared to push ahead with comprehensive reform.

For his part, Obama's record on immigration is nothing like McCain's, but he received a far more enthusiastic welcome than McCain did from the Latino lobby.

That is hardly surprising. Polls show that Hispanics are leaning heavily towards Democrats in this election cycle. The anti-Hispanic rhetoric of so many Republican legislators will surely come back to haunt even McCain in November.

But there has been a tradition of tension between Hispanics and blacks, and Senator Hillary Clinton overwhelmingly won Hispanic votes in the Democratic primary. Since then, however, Hispanic voters have made clear in polls that they prefer Obama to McCain.

It was hardly surprising then that Obama decided to attack the Arizona senator on the issue. Obama lashed out at McCain for his changed stance.

"One place where Senator McCain used to offer change was on immigration. He was a champion of comprehensive reform, and I admired him for it," Obama told the gathering.

"But when he was running for his party's nomination, he walked away from that commitment and he's said he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote."

To solve the problems we face, "we can't vacillate, we can't shift," the Democratic hopeful said.

Those are strong words. Indeed, immigration reform will need political courage from either of the two candidates, as they will face a raft of lobbyists and opponents who want to focus only on enforcement, or to do nothing at all.

It will take a major effort on the part of whichever candidate is elected to finally make reform happen.

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