WASHINGTON — John McCain and Barack Obama told a major Hispanic organization Tuesday that they remain committed to passing comprehensive immigration legislation, despite its defeat in Congress and unpopularity with voters who prefer a heavier emphasis on border security.
Their remarks to the League of United Latin Citizens came before the 79th convention of the 115,000-member Hispanic group, but the presumptive Republican and Democratic Party nominees, respectively, were reaching out to a broader group: the 9 million or more Latinos who are expected to vote in November.
As the Democratic nominee, Obama should benefit more from the Hispanic vote. The Pew Hispanic Center found last year that 57 percent of registered Hispanic voters aligned with Democrats, while only 23 percent aligned with Republicans, a gap that increased significantly after congressional Republicans quashed legislation that would have given millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
But two factors could complicate the partisan outlook.
First, in Democratic primaries, Hispanic voters preferred Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., to Obama, and Democrats have some concerns that traditional tensions between Hispanic and black communities could affect the general election.
Jorge Diaz, a 54-year-old federal worker from Richmond, Va., and lifelong Democrat, said he voted for Clinton in the Feb. 12 primary but now leaned toward McCain because he wasn't comfortable with Obama.
"I can't believe what Obama says. He changes his mind too much," Diaz said after hearing McCain speak. "I'm still waiting for Obama to do something to make me believe in him. I don't know what it is, though."
Second, McCain's record as one who crossed his party in favor of immigration restructuring with a path to citizenship endeared him to some Hispanic voters. But the Arizona senator has moved in recent months to shore up his standing with his party's base by emphasizing border security over citizenship and suggesting that he wouldn't push as aggressively for the changes he advocated in the past.
In his speech, McCain lamented that his efforts to pass a comprehensive immigration bill — one that dealt "practically and humanely with those who came here, as my ancestors did, to build a better life for their families, without excusing the fact they came illegally" — failed after opponents complained that it would grant amnesty to illegal immigrants.
"Many Americans, with good cause, did not believe us when we said we would secure our borders, and so we failed in our efforts," McCain said. "We must prove to them that we can and will secure our borders first, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States."
Obama, who spoke later, accused McCain of abandoning his own "courageous stance" on immigration to run for the White House. The Illinois senator vowed to make immigration a top priority in his first year as president.
He said an immigration bill must do more than secure the borders and crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants.
"We have to finally bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows," Obama said. "Yes, they broke the law. They should have to pay a fine, they should have to learn English, they should go to the back of the line. But we also have to put them on a pathway to citizenship. That's how we'll finally fix our broken immigration system and avoid creating a servant class in our midst."
McCain's campaign took the offensive in a conference call with reporters even before Obama spoke to LULAC.
Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, R-Fla., said that McCain had always emphasized border security as a priority in the framework of a comprehensive bill.
But in fact McCain, when he was asked during a candidates' debate Jan. 30 whether he'd vote for the original immigration bill he authored with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., replied: "No, I would not," according to FactCheck.org.
Diaz-Balart also minimized Obama's role in the immigration debate, describing him as a non-factor.
"I as a House member was intimately involved in many of the meetings where Senator McCain was leading the effort to get comprehensive reform passed," Diaz-Balart said. "Senator Obama was simply and absolutely AWOL, nowhere to be seen in any of the meetings we held. . . . He was an absolute non-player."
The fierce fight for Hispanic votes reflects the major role they're poised to play in November. California and Texas have the largest numbers of Hispanics; combined, the two states hold nearly 1 in 2 eligible Hispanic voters.
But with California typically Democratic in presidential elections and Texas Republican, the Hispanic vote may matter more in swing states where it's sizable, such as New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado. And if the vote is close in two traditional swing states, Ohio and Florida, Hispanic votes could be decisive there, too.
"We are an extremely important bloc, and Latinos are open-minded and will listen to both candidates," said Federico Rocha, a U.S. marshal from San Francisco who attended the LULAC convention.
Rocha said he hadn't made up his mind yet but he thought that both McCain and Obama had compelling arguments on immigration.
"I think both candidates are trying to speak to it as a practical matter, not a personal matter," he said. "I think it's been more emotional as a broad public issue."