WASHINGTON — The clamor over immigration reform has softened to a whisper along the presidential campaign trail.
Last year, Congress was immersed in a bruising battle over fixing the nation’s immigration system.
In that fight, John McCain was joined by fellow GOP Senator Mel Martinez of Florida and eight other senators in unsuccessfully advocating a bipartisan comprehensive approach that some decried as providing “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants.
During this year’s early presidential primaries and caucuses, Republican rivals pushed harder-lined positions, prodding McCain to tweak his stance. Democrats traded barbs over giving driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants.
But now, the debate over immigration reform has almost disappeared as a top presidential campaign topic.
“It really has been quiet,” said Martinez, who said he is not surprised
He and several political analysts say other issues, many tied to the nation’s tanking economy, are preoccupying the public and the candidates.
“Mortgages, health insurance, job creation – those are the issues the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates will be discussing,” said national political pollster John Zogby.
But there’s something else, say other experts, including those who advocate on behalf of immigrants, and those who urge stricter enforcement of immigration laws and tougher border controls.
McCain’s emergence as the presumptive Republican presidential nominee has essentially taken the issue off the table in the White House race, they agree.
“There’s literally no difference in the positions of the Barack Obama, John McCain and Hillary Clinton,” explains Steve Camarata, director of research for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, a conservative group.
Like McCain, Obama and Clinton favor a pathway-to-citizenship for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants now in the country illegally, providing they fulfill certain requirements.
Both Democrats supported the bipartisan bill crafted last year by McCain, Martinez and others.
Camarata and others say that with so little setting the three candidates apart, other than legislative-language minutia, the McCain, Obama and Clinton campaigns see no real political advantage in raising the thorny issue of immigration.
“It’s not one where you can draw any bright-line distinctions,” agreed Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group. “From a campaign strategist’s viewpoint, it’s not really a priority item. After all, the aim is to draw distinctions from your opponent.”
Anyhow, Zogby said immigration does not remain at the top of the list of concerns on the minds of most voters.
“I think there was plenty of evidence it was fizzling, anyway,” said Zogby.
He noted the GOP presidential campaigns of Reps. Duncan Hunter of California and Tom Tancredo of Colorado tried to showcase strong border security and tough immigration-law enforcement themes, but never caught fire – or even much attention.
Mitt Romney also tried to push his plan for dealing with illegal immigration with a flurry of television ads deriding McCain’s plan as “amnesty.”
“That didn’t work out too well for him,” said Rivlin. “In fact, Florida (the state’s Jan. 29 primary won by McCain) was a big turning point, as the Latino vote provided McCain’s margin of victory over Mr. Romney.”
Still, McCain has flinched under such attacks.
Hoping to shore up his support within the conservative base of his party, McCain more recently has been insisting to conservatives that his immigration-reform plan has always called for stronger control of the U.S. borders – even if, he says, that has not been widely perceived.
“I accept that, and have pledged that it would be among my highest priorities to secure or borders first, and only after we achieved widespread consensus that our borders are secure, would we address other aspects of the problem …,” said McCain in a February speech to the Conservative Political Action Conference.
Martinez said that’s where the rejection of his and McCain’s immigration bill left things, at least in Congress. Securing the border first and tougher enforcement of the immigration laws are the only things that will fly right now, he said.
Obama and Clinton also seem to recognize that.
Both have been clear about their positions that any approach to providing wider channels for undocumented immigrants to stay in the country much be combined with an approach that emphasizes tighter border controls.
For McCain, especially, a new poll shows it may be better just to let sleeping dogs lie.
The poll, commissioned by the Center for Immigration Studies, indicates that many of the voters who’ve supported McCain, Obama and Clinton in the early primary contests this year were clueless about the candidates’ positions on immigration, or even hold different positions from the candidates they’ve supported.
For instance, only 34 percent of the 546 Republicans and 730 Democrats surveyed between March 12 and 13 who voted in primaries for McCain correctly identified the Arizona Republican as favoring eventual citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
And just 31 percent of the people surveyed who voted for McCain said they held the same immigration position as he does.
Likewise, just 42 percent of those who voted for Clinton were aware that the New York Democrat also favored eventual citizenship. And 52 percent of those who voted for Obama knew the Illinois Democrat did. The poll had an overall margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent, but higher for subgroups.
“My guess is that McCain would rather put his hand in the open flame than talk about the issue,” said Camarata. He said McCain has nothing to gain on the issue against Obama or Clinton, and it could only be hurt in his standing among conservatives who are the most vocal and worked up over the issue.
Still, Rivlin and Zogby both say they expect immigration will be an issue in some select congressional races across the county, and that some hard-charging Republicans may even try to make it a major factor in their campaigns.
“What is going to be an issue is how much the Republican rhetoric from those lower on the ticket is going to damage Mr. McCain’s chances – including in states like New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and other key swing states,” said Rivlin.
In the Tampa Bay area, GOP Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite of Brooksville promises that she won’t ignore immigration in her re-election race this fall because, “I think, at least in my congressional district, it’s a very important issue.”
Brown-Waite supported Romney over McCain in the Florida primary. She said tougher immigration enforcement is the No. 1 or No. 2 issue that constituents keep bringing up in her town halls or other local appearances, adding “they want a secure border and they keep saying that.”
Of the bill advocated last year by McCain and Martinez, she said, “It would have given a path to citizenship and the American people spoke up and deluged the phone lines in the Senate in opposition to it … it sparked individuals’ ire and attention, and it’s good the American people got so involved.
She added: “I know that the Democratic Party is very split on this issue, and that’s why I know they don’t very much want this issue to come up.”
Asked if she supports McCain, despite his immigration positions, Brown-Waite answered: “He was not my first choice. But he is the candidate of my party.”