McCain Backs ‘Borders First’ Immigration Bill

John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and John Kyl, widely rebuked by their fellow Republicans for backing a comprehensive immigration reform bill, are now back with a watered down version that focuses on securing the borders without providing a path to citizenship that can be criticized as “amnesty.”

Republican presidential hopeful John McCain on Thursday backed a scaled-down proposal that imposes strict rules to end illegal immigration but doesn’t include a path to citizenship. The move away from a comprehensive measure is an about-face for the Arizona senator, who had been a leading GOP champion of a bill that included a guest worker program and would have legalized many of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S. It failed earlier this year.

“We can still show the American people that we are serious about securing our nation’s border,” McCain said in a statement, adding that the new bill would “provide an essential step toward achieving comprehensive reform in the future.”

McCain’s immigration position has been a campaign liability among Republican voters and hurt his efforts to raise money. Other GOP presidential candidates, fellow Arizona Republicans and immigration opponents throughout the country have loudly decried his position.

Observers said McCain’s switch was political. “He recognizes his position on the issue is killing him,” said Steven Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors vigorous immigration enforcement. McCain’s co-sponsors include Republican Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Jon Kyl of Arizona. All three were leading advocates for the unsuccessful comprehensive immigration measure and were bombarded with criticism for their support.

Immigrants’ rights advocates jumped to condemn their decision. “It is fairly stunning they have gone from leaders on comprehensive reform legislation to lemmings running over the cliff” with the Republican opponents of the bill, said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum.

Among other things, the bill makes being in the country illegally a criminal misdemeanor and toughens penalties for re-entering after being deported. It mandates an electronic system for employers to check workers’ citizenship status and requires illegal immigrants who commit a crime to be held in jail until they are deported.

The YahooNews headline, “McCain changes course on immigration,” along with the insinuation that this is a radical policy change, strikes me as unfair. McCain led an incredibly unpopular effort that failed. Now, he’s trying to get a watered down version that takes out the most controversial elements passed. That’s the way the process is supposed to work.

While this version may have a chance to pass, it’s just as unlikely as its comprehensive predecessor to staunch the flow of illegal immigration from Mexico. Spending billions of dollars to turn our two thousand mile southern border into a militarized zone might dissuade a few would be tomato pickers but the lure of a large wealthy nation next to a poor one is simply too powerful.

FILED UNDER: General, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. reusha2000 says:

    Finally maybe our lawmakers will become once again “OUR” lawmakers! Not Mexico’s.