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Commentary: McCain can't catch a break

  • Story Highlights
  • Ruben Navarrette: McCain showed leadership in his immigration stance
  • He says Obama and Democrats ducked key issues and made bad choices
  • Yet McCain is suffering from Latinos' view that Democrats are their allies, he says
  • Navarrette: Don't blame McCain for views of anti-immigrant Republicans
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By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
Special to CNN
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Editor's Note: Ruben Navarrette Jr. is a nationally syndicated columnist and a member of the editorial board of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Read his column here

Ruben Navarrette says John McCain has been a positive force on the immigration issue.

SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- Thanks to the immigration issue, many Latinos think of Democrats as the good guys and Republicans as the bad guys. It's an attitude that spells trouble for John McCain.

But it isn't that simple, and this election proves it. McCain -- a Republican -- risked his political career to pursue comprehensive immigration reform, while Barack Obama -- a Democrat -- was late to the issue and made some bad choices once he stepped into the debate.

I understand the larger argument. As I have written on many occasions, when Republicans ran Congress, they bungled immigration reform by clinging to an enforcement-only strategy, declaring English the national language, and ignoring anti-Latino racism.

Then, after claiming they were only against "illegal" immigration, Republicans tried to limit the number of Latino immigrants who come legally by abandoning family reunification as a principle of U.S. immigration policy.

But Congress is no longer under Republican control, and yet we're no closer to comprehensive immigration reform. That's because Democrats have, in the last two years, bungled immigration reform by undermining a guest worker program as a favor to organized labor, whose leaders continue to insist -- with a straight face -- that laid-off middle-aged factory workers would love to pick strawberries if only illegal immigrants weren't hogging the best jobs.

Then Democrats put the whole issue on ice and ducked a subject that Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Illinois, has dubbed the "third rail" of American politics. Some leadership.

Maybe Democrats are waiting for a potential President Obama to lead the way. But the issue isn't even on Obama's radar.

He voted for a pointless Senate bill calling for the construction of 700 miles of border fencing (he later said he regretted that vote); proposed a "poison pill" amendment intended to gut the guest worker program; lost the Latino vote to Hillary Clinton in part because he was so enthralled with the politics of black-and-white that he overlooked the Latino electorate; and suggested that he would not get around to comprehensive immigration reform in the first 100 days of his administration.

Democrats are lucky to have Republican boogeymen like Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-CO, who uses immigration to scare up votes and campaign cash. Tancredo isn't just anti-illegal immigrant. He's anti-immigrant.

This modern day "Know Nothing" tried to limit visas for high-skilled workers from China and India, argued that real Americans speak English, called Miami a "third world country," and proposed a moratorium on all immigration - including the legal kind. And, now that he is retiring from Congress, Tancredo is suggesting that he might run for Colorado governor in 2010.

Tancredo's least favorite Republican is -- guess who? -- John McCain. That's because the Arizona senator knows a nativist when he sees one and hasn't been shy about criticizing Tancredo and other members of his own party when necessary. He did just that in a recent telephone interview with me.

"Because of the kind of rhetoric that was used on this issue, there are many Latinos who believe that we are anti-them and not anti-illegal immigration," McCain said.

The Arizona senator told me about his visit to a small town in Iowa, where residents have recently experienced more illegal immigration from Mexico.

"There were a lot of elderly people there," McCain said, "and they seemed to be genuinely frightened. A woman said, 'This is terrible. I have to dial 1 for English. They're destroying our culture.' And I said, 'Ma'am, you know the greatness of America is that we've had wave after wave of new blood, new vitality...There is no reason for you to be frightened. And the people who are frightening you are not doing you anything but a grave disservice.' "

Meanwhile, during a recent interview on Spanish-language television, Gov. Sarah Palin declared her support for comprehensive immigration reform. She said that, while she doesn't favor a "total amnesty" (without conditions), she does support giving illegal immigrants a path to earned legalization.

People have to "follow the rules," she said, but they should also be "treated equally and fairly in this country."

Splendid. We can start by judging political figures on their own merits instead of giving some a free ride while punishing others for sins they didn't commit.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Ruben Navarrette.

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