Presidential Candidates Not Far Apart on Immigration

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The three presidential candidates aren't talking much about immigration. It could be because voters don't list it as one of their few top priorities. It also could be because the candidates' views aren't all that far apart. KPCC's Special Correspondent Kitty Felde reports.

Kitty Felde: The last time Democratic presidential candidates talked about illegal immigration at length, it was in February at a debate before the Texas primary.

Senator Hillary Clinton: We need comprehensive immigration reform. I have been for this, I signed onto the first comprehensive bill back in 2004, I've been advocating for it; tougher, more secure borders, of course, but let's do it the right way.

Felde: Senator Clinton supports a path to legalization that includes paying fines and learning English, tougher penalties for employers who hire undocumented workers, and finishing the fence along the Mexican border. Senator Obama also supports a path to legalization that includes learning English and going to the back of the line, and he, too, wants to finish that border fence.

Senator Barack Obama: We need comprehensive reform, and that means stronger border security. It means that we are cracking down on employers that are taking advantage of undocumented workers, because they can't complain if they're not paid a minimum wage, they can't complain if they're not getting overtime; worker safety laws are not being observed, we have to crack down on those employers. Although, we also have to make sure that we do it in a way that doesn't lead to people with Spanish surnames being discriminated against.

Felde: Republican presidential candidate John McCain's name is on the failed 2005 Senate immigration bill. That measure would have increased border security, and it would have legalized undocumented immigrants after they paid fines and back taxes. McCain was roundly criticized by his own party for his stance on the issue. Last fall, with his campaign almost out of money and with him trailing in the polls, McCain gave reporters at the California Republican Party convention a more muted version of his position.

Senator John McCain: I got the message of our failure, and that is, we have to secure the borders, and I still believe we need a temporary worker program, and we have to address the issue of 12 million people who are in this country illegally. That's de facto amnesty.

Felde: McCain's argument doesn't fly with Al Garza, National Executive Director of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps. He describes all the remaining candidates as "evil people."

Al Garza: I don't see any of the three, including McCain, that have American's best interests at heart, not one of them. If any one of these guys, any one of the three wins the presidency, we're doomed. America will no longer exist as we know it today.

Felde: There were four Republican candidates who held a tough line on immigration: Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, Ron Paul, and Mitt Romney.

Dana Rohrabacher: Nobody, nobody took Mitt Romney seriously about immigration.

Felde: Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher of Huntington Beach says none of the candidates were his first choice.

Rohrabacher: It's a very tragic scenario where we had a candidate, George Allen, who every conservative in the country was ready to get behind, and we put all our eggs in the George Allen basket, and then he lost his reelection bid.

Felde: Congressman Rohrabacher predicts conservatives won't vote Republican in November, particularly if the Libertarians nominate a candidate who's attractively conservative. Rohrabacher admits that could throw the election to the Democrats, but he predicts it would also set the stage for a major anti-immigrant backlash. UC Irvine political science professor Louis DiSipio predicts a Democrat will sit in the White House next year. He says neither Clinton nor Obama were leaders on immigration issues in the Senate. But–

Louis DiSipio: Neither is frightened of the word "amnesty." So, you know, they will be advocates of a immigration reform. Where they need to be challenged in the fall campaign is to understand how that fits into their priorities for the new administration.

Felde: And it might be nowhere, at least at the beginning. UCI's Louis DiSipio says it might make sense for a Democratic president to put off immigration reform until a second term. A recent CNN/Opinion Research poll ranked immigration fifth among issues important to voters, far behind the economy.