Welcome to John McCain’s Amnesty Apology Tour. In his quest to win the conservative primary votes that eluded him in his previous bid for the Republican presidential nomination, the four-term Arizona senator is presenting himself as a born-again border protector. The defeat of McCain’s “comprehensive” immigration legislation—painstakingly crafted with Ted Kennedy—is central to his conversion experience. “I got the message,” McCain vowed repeatedly on the campaign trail in South Carolina. “We will secure the borders first.” Cross his heart.

McCain’s minuet with the Minutemen has managed to persuade some primary voters. In South Carolina, he finished second among Republicans who listed controlling illegal immigration as their top issue—a result almost as incomprehensible as his first-place showing among antiwar Republicans in New Hampshire —running just 8 points behind Mike Huckabee, another newly hatched immigration hawk. McCain now insists that he never supported amnesty and that it is “absolutely false” to say he did.

Time for a little straight talk, as the candidate himself might say. No national Republican leader has a longer or more consistent record of advocating legal status for nearly all of the country’s 12 to 20 million illegal immigrants—not even George W. Bush. McCain’s nomination would push the politics of immigration to the left and potentially unravel the conservative consensus in favor of attrition through enforcement. “To build an immigration record that’s worse than Huckabee’s and even Giuliani’s takes some doing, but that’s what McCain has done,” immigration writer James Edwards argued. “McCain’s record is more in line with Democrat candidates.”

McCain wasn’t always so squeamish about the word “amnesty.” “Amnesty has to be an important part [of immigration reform] because there are people who have lived in this country for 20, 30 or 40 years, who have raised children here and pay taxes here and are not citizens,” he told the Tucson Citizen in May 2003. “I think we can set up a program where amnesty is extended to a certain number of people who are eligible…”

But even after McCain retreated to such euphemisms as “path to citizenship” and “temporary worker,” the substance of his position remained the same. The different versions of the bill he co-authored with Ted Kennedy offered legal status to illegal immigrants for as little as $2,000, provided they were willing to jump through various administrative hoops. As former Atty. Gen. Ed Meese has pointed out, the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986—which no one disputes was an amnesty—also put conditions on legalization.

The most recent McCain-sponsored Senate immigration bill offered loophole-ridden, repeatedly renewable Z visas that would have extended swift legal status to millions. Background checks had to be completed in a single business day with frequently unreliable documentation. The visas could be renewed by simply taking—not passing—the naturalization test and getting on a waiting list for an English class.

In addition to assuming a leadership role in every bipartisan coalition to ram amnesty through the Senate and down the American people’s throats, McCain has worked to dilute border-enforcement measures. He voted for an amendment to kill the border fence by forcing federal authorities to “consult” with Mexico before construction. He voted against an amendment to permanently bar gang members, terrorists, sex offenders, alien absconders, repeat DUI convicts, and illegal immigrants convicted of domestic violence. He also voted against an amendment that would have blocked Social Security credits to illegals guilty of identity fraud.

McCain led Republican opposition to Arizona’s Proposition 200, which required proof of legal status before obtaining certain government services. The initiative passed anyway with 56 percent of the vote, including 47 percent of Hispanics. He has been a consistent foe of official-English campaigns, starting with Arizona’s Article 28 two decades ago.

As a co-sponsor of the DREAM Act, McCain promoted in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and a targeted amnesty for their family members. In 1999, the liberal-leaning League of Latin American Citizens gave McCain its Legislative Friendship Award based on his support for bilingual education and opposition to many immigration restrictions.

McCain has backed away from some of these positions. He eventually voted to fund the border fence. He missed an October vote on the DREAM Act and has hinted that he no longer supports the bill as written. But these campaign-season conversions have to be taken in the context of his complete voting record, which gets low marks from Americans for Better Immigration—a D overall and an F on votes related to amnesty.

In the summer of 2007, these votes and his pro-amnesty alliance with the Democrats nearly derailed his presidential candidacy. Having already alienated the party’s business wing with his campaign-finance reforms and tax-cut intransigence, McCain’s position on illegal immigration was poison to small donors. With less cash on hand than Ron Paul, the McCain campaign hemorrhaged staff, with longtime aides John Weaver and Terry Nelson departing.

Republicans were in full rebellion against the latest version of McCain-Kennedy. Rush Limbaugh dubbed it the “Destroy the Republican Party Act,” House Minority Leader John Boehner called it a “piece of s–t.” Newt Gingrich appeared on Sean Hannity’s show to declare that the immigration deal amounted to a “sellout of every conservative principle.” Even sympathetic pundits like Bill Kristol and John Podhoretz came out against the bill as its public support dipped as low as 25 percent.

McCain’s poll numbers also tanked, as he was the only Republican presidential candidate willing to defend the bill. Then front-runner Rudy Giuliani, a onetime amnesty supporter, smartly pivoted and opposed McCain-Kennedy on technical grounds. Despite past statements to the contrary, Mitt Romney, hardly an immigration restrictionist in the past, attacked McCain’s stance.

Six months later, McCain is attempting a similar reinvention. The defeated immigration legislation has receded into history, and McCain is trying to make a comeback. To do so, he has to distance himself from his past votes and pledge to secure the borders before attempting anything like McCain-Kennedy again. He says he now realizes that amnesty-plus-enforcement deals are a nonstarter.

Even McCain’s revised position is inadequate. He says that he will have border-state governors certify that illegal crossings are under control. But over 40 percent of illegal immigrants enter legally and overstay their visas. Only stepped-up employer sanctions and interior enforcement can reduce the existing illegal population. An overly border-centric approach can actually increase that population by making illegals reluctant to return home.

The larger problem is that there is no reason to believe that McCain’s current enforcement-first posture will endure long past the 2008 election. It is simply a concession to Republican voters that is likely to be abandoned as soon as political conditions change. On this issue, McCain is as much as conviction politician as Tom Tancredo—except that he ardently believes conservative concerns about uncontrolled immigration have no rational basis.

In fact, McCain treats those who disagree with him as ignoramuses at best, racists and xenophobes at worst. He believes the United States is a propositional nation and that any reduction in immigration would be contrary to Ronald Reagan’s Shining City on a Hill. He combines multicultural politics with the cheap-labor lobby’s economics. Until it began to threaten his presidential ambitions, McCain had difficulty hiding his contempt for those to his right on immigration.

Speaking to the AFL-CIO’s Building and Construction Trades Department, McCain challenged opponents of his amnesty bill to pick lettuce in Arizona for $50 per hour. After several shouts of acceptance, McCain replied, “You can’t do it, my friends.” Immigration-reform groups subsequently flooded the senator’s office with calls, applications, and heads of lettuce.

That was a lighthearted exchange compared to McCain’s other choice words for immigration reformers. “But I’ll build the g–damned fence if they want,” he growled to Vanity Fair. When Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) disagreed with him about immigration-enforcement provisions, McCain reportedly shot back, “F- -k you!” Organizations like Numbers USA and the Center for Immigration Studies shouldn’t expect greater collegiality.

Or receptiveness to their arguments. McCain shows no familiarity with the economic literature on immigration, preferring slogans about jobs Americans won’t do. He has not read the studies suggesting that the current wave of unskilled immigration has yielded virtually no net economic benefit to American workers and has hurt the most economically vulnerable among us, themselves disproportionately black and Hispanic.

Despite the proliferation of op-eds and policy papers arguing for attrition via enforcement, McCain continues to claim that the only alternatives are amnesty or mass deportations. He thinks of immigration only in terms of the hard cases that make bad law. “But I’ll tell you this, ma’am,” McCain said to a voter in Michigan. “I’m not going to call up a soldier who’s fighting in Iraq today and tell him I’m going to deport his mother.”

The odds that McCain, who delights in his maverick reputation, would be constrained by the conservative coalition once in office are small. He will be tempted to revisit the immigration issue with a Democratic Congress. Asked before the Florida primary whether a President McCain would sign an immigration bill similar to McCain-Kennedy if it came to his desk, he replied, “Yeah. But look. … It isn’t going to come.” If a McCain administration comes, those assurances will ring hollow. The new Amnesty Advocacy Tour will have begun.
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W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.