Sen. John McCain is both a passionate and pragmatic elected official. Both sides of him were on display Tuesday at the Mesa Arts Center.
Sen. McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake both have shown some political mettle by being ringleaders in the Senate coalition referred to as the “Gang of Eight.” On Tuesday they both promoted and defended the immigration reform legislation they helped craft and negotiate to approval in the U.S. Senate.
The senators spoke together at “A Conversation on Immigration with John McCain and Jeff Flake” at Mesa Arts Center, a made-for-TV/Internet event put on by The Arizona Republic, Channel 12 KPNX and azcentral.com. It was live-streamed and will be broadcast on Sunday on KPNX.
The conversation focused on border security, jobs and the estimated 11 million people in America “living in the shadows” because they are here illegally.
Both senators said the bill’s investment in technology, fencing and more border patrol will assure much better border security. They agree that securing the border is very important. They say the bill will ultimately spur the economy and create more jobs for Americans. And they say it provides an answer on what to do about those who crossed the border illegally or stayed after their visas expired.
The devil is in the details and there continues to be plenty of argument about how well the senate bill that was sent to the house does on those topics. There are signs the Republican-controlled House won’t really consider the senate version and may work to pass one-off legislation to address pieces of immigration issues rather than a comprehensive bill.
But that is all just politics. And politics rarely focus on the human side of the story. Sen. McCain often does.
He told a story about being in Iraq a few years ago and attending a ceremony in which soldiers re-enlisted to continue their service. Included in the ceremony was a separate group of 80 men and women that served but was not yet U.S. citizens. He pointed out that serving in the military is one way for non-citizens to expedite their journey to citizenship. This day was their ticket to being an American.
He said about 2,000 soldiers were attending the ceremony when he noticed the non-citizen group had four empty chairs with four sets of boots in front of them. He asked an officer why and was told that four non-citizen soldiers had died in the previous 48 hours and would be honored posthumously as U.S. citizens. He paused a moment for the effect of that to reach the audience.
He then said it was a reminder of what lengths people will go to so that they can become an American.
Sens. Flake and McCain said the bill passed by the Senate does not provide amnesty to the estimated 11 million people in the U.S. illegally. But it does provide a 10-year pathway to become legal if they pay fines, back taxes and follow U.S. law.
“All of us should have a chance at redemption and that is what this is about,” he said.
Who doesn’t need to be redeemed for some wrong?
Three times Tuesday Sen. McCain referred to the Republican party as “the party of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan.” He made the reference during the town hall and then twice more at private luncheon with a group of East Valley business leaders.
“The party of Lincoln and Reagan is going through a very difficult struggle right now,” McCain told the small luncheon group.
He said some in the party don’t want to compromise on anything. Others want to be isolationists. And others don’t want to do anything. Some of those same people call themselves Reagan Republicans.
But he said that isn’t what Ronald Reagan was about. He said Reagan compromised on many issues so that he could get things done and solve the country’s problems. And now is it time for the Republican party to get something done on immigration reform.
Sens. Flake and McCain did not write the senate bill all by themselves. They both admitted it is not a perfect bill. But they spent weeks negotiating with many interested parties in the debate to arrive at something that can begin to secure the border and provide answers about what to do with the people here illegally.
Both said that it is important that Arizona be a leader on immigration reform. And they called on Arizona’s U.S. House members to join them in getting something done.
Terry Horne is publisher and editor of the East Valley Tribune and general manager of 1013 Communications Arizona, which also includes the Daily News-Sun in Sun City, the Ahwatukee Foothills News, Arizona Interactive Media, The Explorer in Tucson, Glendale-Peoria Today and Surprise Today.