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GOP hopefuls keep distance on immigration

A bipartisan immigration plan is in danger as Sen. John McCain pulls away, Mitt Romney shifts his stance and Rudy Giuliani stays quiet.[!]
Republican presidential candidates take at Abraham Lincoln Unity Dinner
Former Mayor of New York and Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Guiliani, speaks at the Republican's Abraham Lincoln Unity Dinner, on Monday, in Des Moines, Iowa. Steve Pope / EPA
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Less than a year ago, Sen. John McCain of Arizona was the most visible Republican in the fight for immigration reform, having joined forces with Democratic Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (Mass.) in an ultimately unsuccessful bid to clamp down on border security and create a guest-worker program for the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants.

Now, a renewed effort is underway, but this time without McCain as Kennedy's co-star. As he stumps in Iowa and New Hampshire, McCain has handed off day-to-day negotiations on immigration to his staff and to fellow Senate Republicans Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Lindsey O. Graham (S.C.). In his formal presidential announcement speech in New Hampshire last month, he made no mention of the issue.

"The fact that he's not in the room helping to build a bipartisan consensus . . . it's going to be far more difficult to get a bipartisan bill," said Frank Sharry, a pro-immigrant lobbyist. "This guy is my hero on this issue. I am heartbroken that he's not in the room. Heartbroken."

Senators from both parties and senior White House officials are hurrying to negotiate a deal that would give illegal immigrants a path to legal status after clearing criminal checks and paying fines. The plan would beef up border security and put new emphasis on enforcing workplace rules. Democratic leaders have given them until tomorrow to produce legislation before forcing another vote on the McCain-Kennedy bill that failed last year.

In the meantime, the leading Republican candidates for president are distancing themselves from the plan.

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, who just a year ago characterized the bipartisan efforts as "reasonable proposals," now derides the plans being negotiated in Congress as "amnesty" for illegal immigration.

Former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, whose record is filled with pro-immigrant speeches and actions, has been largely silent on the debate. And Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, another GOP contender, was a key McCain ally on immigration a year ago but recently renounced his support for the approach.

"When the public opinion matters most is during elections," said Steven Camarota, the research director for the Center for Immigration Studies, whose group advocates a harder line on illegal immigration. "That's why all the candidates tend to move toward enforcement and not talk so much about legalization."

Activists on both sides of the debate say the presidential candidates are becoming more conservative on the issue, believing that GOP primary voters who will decide the Republican nomination want tougher positions on how to deal with illegal immigrants.

More than one-third of Republicans said in exit polls after the 2006 election that illegal immigration was extremely important to their vote. More than two-thirds of conservative Republicans surveyed by Pew Research in March said that newcomers from other countries threaten "customs and values" of America.

McCain's closest advisers say he is still a behind-the-scenes force in attempting to reach compromise on a bill that would secure the border and create a new guest-worker program. "There isn't a scintilla of difference between the way he talks about immigration" today and a year ago, said McCain strategist Mark Salter.

McCain said Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that he is "heavily engaged" in the negotiations and makes calls on the immigration issue every day. He cited a recent meeting with Kennedy and others as evidence that he is still involved and predicted the group is "very close" to a deal.

But a top Senate Democrat said last week that McCain's absence from the negotiations is hurting efforts to reach an agreement. And activists on both sides of the debate say the change in the senator's profile on the issue is striking.

"Why is his name not on it now? Why isn't he leading the negotiations right now? Because he knows it's killing him in the primary," Camarota said. "It's an issue that he could be out front on. He has in the past. He ain't anymore."

A different focus
harry remembers watching in awe as Giuliani faced the cameras in 1994 to defend illegal immigrants, declaring: "If you come here and you work hard and you happen to be in an undocumented status, you're one of the people who we want in this city."

It was a remarkable rebuke to some in his party, recalls Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum. In California that year, conservative activists pushed through Proposition 187, a sweeping referendum that stripped illegal immigrants and their children of the right to state government services and helped Republican Gov. Pete Wilson win reelection.

Giuliani "was a god in the mid-1990s on this issue," Sharry said this week.

Surveys almost a decade later show that the debate continues. Two-thirds of Americans say that illegal immigrants should not receive social services from state and local governments, according to a 2006 Pew study. But more than 70 percent say the children of illegal immigrants should be allowed to attend public schools.

As mayor of New York, Giuliani filed suit against the federal government, challenging what he said were unconstitutional provisions aimed at immigrants. And he ordered his police not to divert time and resources from other crimes to process immigration violations.

"He was constantly extolling the glory of illegal immigration," said Roy Beck, president of Numbers USA, a group that advocates limits on immigration and penalties for undocumented workers. "He's backing away from some of it now."

Aides to Giuliani said he has not changed his positions on immigration and supports efforts to increase border security and find a way to deal with illegal immigrants.

But Giuliani now rarely emphasizes immigration, preferring to focus on his leadership after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, his success at lowering city taxes "23 times," and his reputation for reducing crime.

When he talks about immigration, he usually focuses on the need for a new, tamper-proof ID card for illegal immigrants and the importance of finding and deporting criminals or terrorists who enter the country illegally.

"We need to know everyone who's in the United States that comes in here from a foreign country. And we have to separate the ones who are dangerous from the ones who aren't," Giuliani said on "Fox News Sunday." "We need people to come forward who are working so they'll get identified, get fingerprinted, get photographed. And then we should focus our attention on the people who don't come forward."

A change in feelings
In an interview with reporters and editors at the Boston Globe in November 2005, Romney spoke favorably of President Bush's immigration proposals, saying the ideas under consideration should not be thought of as amnesty.

"What the president has proposed, and what Senators McCain and Cornyn have proposed, are quite different than that," he told the Globe at the time, referring to John Cornyn (R-Tex.).

But Romney never endorsed the idea, and as he began to run for president, his rhetoric changed. At the annual meeting of the Conservative Political Action Committee in March, Romney said: "McCain-Kennedy gives benefits to illegals that would cost taxpayers millions. And more importantly: Amnesty didn't work 20 years ago, and it won't work today."

GOP voters are split evenly over whether illegal immigrants should be given a chance to apply for legal citizenship. But the same surveys show that two-thirds of Democrats favor giving such a chance to immigrants here illegally.

Romney's change, his top aides said, was the result of the legislation morphing on the Senate floor last year. "When the bill finally came out of committee, there were a number of provisions out there which the governor found objectionable," said spokesman Kevin Madden.

On the stump, Romney now talks about building a fence along the border, issuing high-tech identification cards to immigrant workers and increasing the amount of legal immigration.

His advisers point to actions he took as governor as evidence that he has not had a conversion on the issue. In 2005, he vetoed a bill that would have granted in-state tuition rates to illegal immigrants. And as one of his final acts in office, he signed an agreement with federal immigration officials to give state police the authority to pursue immigration violations.

Beck, who favors such proposals, said that Romney "has never extolled the virtues of illegal immigration. In a very hostile environment, he has stood against rewarding illegal immigration."

But Sharry sees it differently, focusing on Romney's initial praise of the McCain-Kennedy bill and the change since then. "He was pro-immigrant until he had that conversion on the road to Iowa," Sharry said.