WASHINGTON — Like many voters who are concerned about immigration, Angelica Salis has warm feelings and nagging doubts about both John McCain and Barack Obama.
"McCain has been very much engaged in this issue for a long time," the Los Angeles community activist said. "But last year, when things got prickly, he seemed to let go of some of his leanings."
Obama, on the other hand, "has constantly stood on our side." But she doesn't really know him yet, and wonders "will he understand that with so many other issues, like Iraq and the economy, that immigration is one of those critical priorities?"
Immigration is a different kind of 2008 presidential campaign issue. The views of McCain, the presumptive Republican candidate, and his Democratic rival, Obama, are similar, and both men have lots of good will among pro-immigration activists, but not much from hard-liners.
"Both Senators McCain and Obama have credible claims to being champions and leaders of comprehensive immigration reform," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice, which backs a "path to citizenship" for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in this country.
"The presidential race is obviously a problem," said Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for Federation for American Immigration Reform, which wants stronger measures against illegal immigration. His group plans to promote candidates for Congress and local offices who oppose any kind of legalization for undocumented workers. They hope to create a grass-roots groundswell that will make it difficult for comprehensive legislation leading to citizenship for illegal immigrants to succeed next year.
McCain and Obama voted for the landmark 2006 legislation that would have made it easier for undocumented workers to gain citizenship, would build a 370-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border and would tighten the employer-verification system.
McCain and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., led the effort, which attracted broad bipartisan support, but it died in the House of Representatives after many Republicans charged that it rewarded illegal immigrants. Efforts to revive the measure last year were unsuccessful.
Today, McCain and Obama are trying to distinguish themselves largely by touting their records — and bashing the other guy.
McCain, Obama backers say, virtually abandoned his commitment to comprehensive change when he needed conservative votes in the presidential primaries.
"He has flip-flopped too many times to count," said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.
Obama, counter McCain supporters, wasn't a player in Senate immigration deliberations and even tried to kill last year's legislation.
"The fact of the matter is, when it counted, Senator Obama was not there," said Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla.
While he certainly didn't have McCain's stature — McCain in 2006 was part of the Senate majority as well as the chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee and a veteran inside player — Obama was somewhat involved in deliberations, a marginal participant.
Sharry recalled the Illinois senator being at many early-morning 2006 Senate meetings involving members of both parties who were trying to keep their fragile coalition together as opponents pushed amendments to dilute the bill.
McCain's forces, though, charge that Obama tried to effectively kill the legislation last year when he proposed an amendment that opponents called a "poison pill." It was defeated 55-42, with Kennedy and McCain opposed.
Today, Obama vows that he'll be a strong champion for immigration. He backs a system that would allow undocumented immigrants without criminal histories to pay a fine, learn English and "go to the back of the line" to wait for citizenship.
He'd also back additional security personnel, infrastructure and technology along the border; he's not more specific, but has said that "if we think that a wall is the sole solution to the problem, then we're not thinking it through."
"It will be one of my priorities on my first day," he told the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials recently, "because this is an issue that we have demagogued."
McCain takes similar stands, but with a twist. He acknowledged last year that his immigration views hurt his standing among Republican voters, and since then he's emphasized border security first.
During the primary campaign, he made a point of telling Republicans, particularly conservatives, that he'd "failed" at enacting a comprehensive overhaul and border security must come first.
On March 13, conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity asked the Arizona senator whether he'd sign the McCain-Kennedy bill today.
"It's not going to be there," McCain said. "The lesson is they (the public) want the border secured first."
But since he's secured the nomination, McCain has appeared to be inching back to his old ways.
"I don't want to fail again to achieve comprehensive immigration reform," he told the National Council of La Raza, a Latino group, on July 14. "We must prove we have the resources to secure our borders and use them, while respecting the dignity and rights of citizens and legal residents of the United States."
Once "we have achieved our border-security goal," he said, "we must enact and
implement the other parts of practical, fair and necessary immigration policy."
Hard-liner groups never bought that McCain had softened his views.
"Senator McCain has always been totally committed to amnesty. He fooled people into thinking he had learned his lesson," said John Vinson, the president of the American Immigration Control Foundation, which advocates getting tough on illegal immigration.
"Senator McCain is very carefully wording what he says, which will probably allow him to do anything he wants," said Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Cecilia Munoz, a vice president at La Raza, comes at the issue from the other direction, but her thoughts are similar.
"People feel like they know him well, and they feel like they know where his heart is," she said. "But there's confusion where he is substantively."
In Los Angeles, Salis figured that the only way to distinguish between the candidates is to watch and listen and make a very personal judgment.
"You have to ask," she said, "who is going to have the courage to confront an incredibly polarizing issue."