By Susan Ferriss - email@example.com
Published 12:00 am PDT Friday, October 10, 2008
Two presidential debates later, and still no comment from John McCain or Barack Obama on the issue of illegal immigration.
With anxiety over the economy high, immigration has faded from the national stage and become an inconvenient topic for candidates, said Efrain Escobedo, voter engagement director for the nonpartisan National Association of Latino Elected Officials, or NALEO.
Ironically, though, Escobedo said, the election's outcome could hinge on how each candidate frames immigration and how many Latino votes he can win in four swing states: Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado and Florida.
Both candidates are trying to connect with Latinos in those states who have been stung by anti-immigrant rhetoric they regard as racially tinged. The candidates want such voters to know they want increased immigration enforcement but also a path for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to try to earn legal status.
McCain may have the more difficult task.
He once earned the respect of Latinos – and the wrath of many immigration hardliners in his own party – for championing so-called comprehensive reform. The Republican nominee now says he won't consider legalization or visa reform before Southwest governors certify that the U.S.-Mexico border is secure.
However, the Republican platform contradicts McCain by rejecting amnesty or "en mass legalizations."
The Rev. Sam Rodriguez, Sacramento-based president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, an evangelical network, is a social conservative leaning toward voting for McCain.
He has spoken with McCain about immigration and is convinced he has a commitment to legalization. But Rodriguez says he is bothered that the McCain campaign's message on immigration changes "according to the venue."
"The problem is Senator McCain's party has been the personification of xenophobia and nativism," said Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican. "We really need the RNC (the Republican National Committee) to apologize to the Hispanic community."
Rodriguez was asked to serve on a national McCain Hispanic advisory committee, but turned it down at the behest of his organization.
McCain's support for legalization "was at his own political peril," said longtime GOP Latina activist and former U.S. Treasurer Rosario Marin, who is strongly pro-McCain. "Hispanics should be grateful."
Marin, state Consumer Services Agency secretary, will go to Colorado, she said, to turn out Latino votes before Election Day.
"There is no question" McCain will pursue legalization once the border is declared secure, Marin said. "He knows he doesn't have to bring every single Republican into the mix," she said.
Kevin Johnson, dean of the UC Davis School of Law and one of three professors at the school advising the Obama campaign on immigration policy, said immigration reform is "a dangerous issue to talk about when the economy is melting down."
But Obama hasn't wavered on the explosive issue when pressed publicly, Johnson said.
Leaving nothing to chance, both campaigns are airing immigration-related television ads, among other themes, in Spanish in swing states.
In one ad, McCain falsely blamed Obama and Democrats for the failure of comprehensive reform in Congress. An Obama ad drew fire for linking McCain to anti-immigrant GOP figures and radio talk-show hosts who have attacked McCain as soft on immigration.
Latinos are not monolithic, said NALEO's Escobedo, and the choice of how to campaign in each swing state shows that.
For example, McCain might attract votes talking up his military service in New Mexico or Colorado, with their high numbers of Latino veterans.
But in Nevada, an affirmative immigration message could tap into nearly 60,000 Latino voters who have registered since 2004 – half of all the state's registered Latinos.
President Bush won Nevada in 2004 by only 20,000 votes.
In a NALEO survey last month, Nevada Latino voters said immigration reform was the second-most important issue in deciding how to vote.
The survey also found that one out of every three Latino voters in Nevada is undecided.
Bill Hing, another Obama adviser from UC Davis Law School, said the Democratic nominee "understands immigrants are dumped on unfairly. He's used the word scapegoat."
In North Carolina, Obama was asked recently whether undocumented youths should be allowed to attend community colleges, as 112 did last year.
The Democratic nominee said he thought it made sense if they had spent most of their lives here, and that it would be better to find a pathway for them to become legal. Contacted by media in that state, the McCain campaign didn't address the specific question but said McCain doesn't support amnesty or benefits for illegal immigrants.
Obama, Johnson said, backs the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented youths who grew up here to earn legal status if they attend college or serve in the military.
McCain was once a prominent GOP supporter of the act. At a July conference of the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights group, he implied he still backed the concept.
He didn't show up for a 2007 Senate vote on the DREAM Act, and his campaign didn't respond to several requests for clarification on his stand.
Rodriguez, who has campaigned for Bush twice, noted that Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote nationwide in 2004, 10 points higher than in 2000.
If McCain falls far short of Bush's last results in Nevada and other swing states and loses the election, Rodriguez said, "the Republican Party has only itself to blame."