Over the past two years, John McCain has taken three distinct, contradictory positions on immigration reform:
Position #1: Comprehensive immigration reform is badly needed. Undocumented immigrants should be able to pursue a path to citizenship. Guest worker programs are essential. I co-sponsored the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007.
While I blasted the bill at the time, the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act was probably the most realistic piece of legislation that could have been proposed in a 50-50 Senate. Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, Democrats are likely to make gains in Congress after November--so a more flexible bill may be on the horizon.
McCain was hammered in the Republican presidential primaries for backing the bill, though. Critics argued that it granted "amnesty" to undocumented immigrants. McCain eventually decided to respond to his critics in a way befitting his loudest opponent, Mitt Romney: By simply changing his position.
Position #2: Comprehensive immigration reform should never happen until the border is secure. As president, I will veto any legislation that is functionally similar to the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007.
During a January 2008 presidential debate, McCain stated that he would not vote for the immigration bill if it came before the Senate floor today because public opinion demanded that the issue of border security be addressed first:
HOOK: At this point, if your original proposal came to a vote on the Senate floor, would you vote for it?The trouble is that the border, which is 2,000 miles long, is physically impossible to "secure." McCain, as senator from a border state, unquestionably knows this. So his position, as he described it in the debate, would be that he favors an indefinite moratorium on comprehensive immigration reform proposals such as the ones he co-sponsored in 2006 and 2007. Had he not taken this position, it would have very likely cost him the Republican presidential nomination--but it is still, by any reasonable measure, a complete reversal of his previous position.
MCCAIN: It won't. It won't. That's why we went through the debate...
HOOK: But if it did?
MCCAIN: No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today. The people want the border secured first ...
We will secure the borders first when I am president of the United States. I know how to do that. I come from a border state, where we know about building walls, and vehicle barriers, and sensors, and all of the things necessary.
I will have the border state governors certify the borders are secured. And then we will move onto the other aspects of this issue, probably as importantly as tamper-proof biometric documents, which then, unless an employer hires someone with those documents, that employer will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. And that will cause a lot of people to leave voluntarily.
There's 2 million people who are here who have committed crimes. They have to be rounded up and deported.
And we're all basically in agreement there are humanitarian situations. It varies with how long they've been here, et cetera, et cetera.
We are all committed to carrying out the mandate of the American people, which is a national security issue, which is securing the borders. That was part of the original proposal, but the American people didn't trust or have confidence in us that we would do it.
So we now know we have to secure the borders first, and that is what needs to be done. That's what I'll do as president of the United States.
Position #3: Barack Obama is not serious enough about comprehensive immigration reform. I am the candidate you should vote for if you want to see a citizenship path or guest worker program.
In a September 2008 Spanish-language political advertisement broadcasted in communities with a high Latino population, McCain blames Obama for the failure of the immigration reform proposal. What he obviously does not mention in the advertisement is his statement that he would now vote against the proposal if it were offered before the Senate.
How to Reconcile These Positions
The only internally consistent narrative I can come up with to explain McCain's position is that he used to support comprehensive immigration reform, but no longer does because he believes that border security is a necessary precondition. He expects to be able to meet that precondition in short order, then proceed to more fundamental immigration policy reform.
But if we approach border security as the Herculean task that it is, McCain would not accomplish it during his first term and very likely would not be able to accomplish it during his second term, either.
So either John McCain intends to use a very lax definition of border security, asking governors to certify as true what is already true and then proceed to comprehensive immigration reform, or he supports a moratorium on comprehensive immigration reform. Either way, he's misleading one of his constituencies: Nativists who believe that he will block immigration reform until the border situation fundamentally changes, or immigrants' rights advocates who believe that he will enact immigration reform without waiting until the border situation fundamentally changes. And when candidates mislead their constituents about their position on an issue, that position becomes very hard to assess.