Harry DeMell, in his article "Why Nobody Wants Immigration Reform", makes the following remarkable statement: "The last presidential candidate who supported an amnesty lost the Hispanic vote and the election". In other words, acording to this statement, John McCain supported legalization for an estimated 10-12 million people in the US illegally during the 2008 election campaign and Barack Obama opposed it.
One part of the above statement is unquestionably accurate - up to a point. Senator John McCain was one of the original sponsors of Comprehensive Immigration Reform in 2007 and he fought tirelessly, along with Senator Edward Kennedy, to develop a bipartisan compromise that was intended to bring millions illegals out of the shadows and put them on the path to legal status. To his great credit, President George W. Bush also fought hard for this historic, and ultimately failed, reform bill.
Neither Senator McCain nor President Bush was afraid to take on the racists and xenophobes in their own party who denounced the idea of legalization under the inflammatory slogan: "No Amnesty For Illegals". (As I have pointed out before, this slogan, obviously aimed against Mexicans and other Latinos - I have yet to hear of any outcry against illegal Scots or Scandinavians in America - is a "worthy" successor to the anti-Irish 1850's Know-Nothing slogan: "No Irish Need Apply".)
Of course, by the time of the 2008 campaign, Senator McCain was singing quite a different "canzion". He had turned against "amnesty" (a word which I would like to recommend should be written with quotes in all future articles dealing with immigration law, for the sake of accuracy). And in 2010, to complete his epiphany (or total humiliation) on this issue, he was wailing about the alleged failure to finish the "danged fence" in order to save his own skin - and Senate seat.
But let us give McCain full credit for fighting for reform - and legalization - in 2007. This effort makes McCain - and Kennedy - two of America's all time heroes of the immigration movement. Kennedy, of course, was already in the immigration Hall of Fame, for his successful fight for immigration reform in 1965, including what I would call his "noble lie" to the Senate to the effect that that abolishing the racist quotas of the 1924 immigration law would not disturb white ethnic domination in America. Of course it did. Bravo for racial equality.
But McCain's role in the CIR effort is not the real question that Mr. DeMell's statement raises. Obama's role is. DeMell implies that Obama was against CIR. Anyone who believes that must also believe that Obama is a Kenya-born Muslim who was a friend of terrorists, learned to hate America from his Christian pastor and was only able to get into Harvard Law School (where he was an editor of the Law Review) through affirmative action. All of the above statements (except that Obama was a Harvard Law Review Editor, which is accurate) are about equal in their truth value, including Mr. DeMell's - namely zero.
Anyone who bothers to check the actual record of CIR votes can see that Obama, along with McCain, voted for it, including the "amnesty" provision. Then what is the origin of the canard that Obama helped to kill CIR? Simply the fact that he voted for five amendments which were accused of being "poison pills" that would allegedly unravel the "delicate compromise" that had been worked out by McCain, Kennedy, and other supporters of the bill. It is true that McCain and Kennedy opposed the five amendments. But were they what killed the bill? Let us look more closely at these amendments.
Two of them would have weakened the "guest worker" provisions of the bill, by sunsetting this program after five years and lowering the annual quota during the five year period. But the proposed guest worker program was not popular with CIR opponents in the first place. It was widely hated, almost as much as "amnesty" itself, and for many of the same reasons - many of the beneficiaries would have been low paid, less educated, Mexicans or Central Americans. Weakening the guest worker proposal would have been more likely to help the bill pass than to kill it.
Two of the other so-called "poison pill" amendments were related to granting temporary work visas to people waiting for "amnesty". One would have made it easier for such people to get work visas by removing the requirement that they had to leave the US first, and the other would have sunset those visas ("Y" visas) entirely after five years. Only the most determined conspiracy theorist would be able to detect a pattern of intent to kill CIR here.
The only amendment that might have had more serious consequences was one offered by Obama hinself, that would have sunset the merit-based evaluation system for immigrants after five years. There is certainly room for debate about whether this would have been a good or a bad idea for immigrants. But to argue that it was a "poison pill", or "bill killer" is absurd.
What killed CIR? Anyone who has doubts about that might also just as well have doubts about who killed Bin Laden. It was opposition to "amnesty" that killed CIR - an avalanche of right wing anti-Mexican racism that one would have to go back more than a 100 years, to the time of the Chinese exclusion laws, to find a parallel for. This is why initially, not a single Senate Republican voted to cut off debate on the bill, and ultimately only a courageous few broke ranks with their party in order to do so.
The same Republicans who killed CIR are now sobbing, to paraphrase the (supposed) words of Julius Caesar: "Et tu, Barack?". Their tears (to mix metaphors a bit) could just have easily been shed by the proverbial crocodile.
Roger Algase is a graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School. He has been practicing business immigration law in New York City for more than 20 years.