Immigration, an issue that has divided Republicans in Washington for the last several years, is reverberating across the party’s presidential campaign field, causing particular complications for Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
The topic came up repeatedly in recent campaign swings through Iowa by McCain and Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, another Republican who, like McCain, supports giving some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, a position that puts them at odds with many other conservatives. Both candidates faced intensive questioning from voters on the issue, which has become more prominent in the state as immigrants are playing an increasingly visible role in the economy and society.
“Immigration is probably a more powerful issue here than almost anyplace that I’ve been,” McCain said after a town meeting in Cedar Falls.
As he left Iowa, McCain said he was reconsidering his views on how the immigration law might be changed. He said he was open to legislation that would require people who came to the United States illegally to return home before applying for citizenship, a measure proposed by Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind. McCain has previously favored legislation that would allow most illegal immigrants to become citizens without leaving the country.
Beyond whatever influence it has as the state whose caucuses kick off the presidential nominating contest, Iowa has become something of a laboratory for the politics of immigration. Not only is it a place where industries like meatpacking rely heavily on immigrant workers and where a once relatively homogenous population is confronting an influx of Hispanic residents, but the presidential candidates who are criss-crossing the state are also providing forums for Iowans to express their views and influence national policy.
On Saturday morning in Des Moines, Brownback stood for 30 minutes at a breakfast with Republicans as question after question — without exception — was directed at an immigration system that Iowans denounced as failing. “These people are stealing from us,” said Larry Smith, a factory owner from Truro and a member of the central committee of the state Republican Party.
Finally, Brownback, with a slight smile, inquired, “Any other topics that people want to talk about?”
The issue has become much more complicated as the presidential campaign has gotten under way, exposing the Republicans in particular to voters who are angry about what they see as porous borders, growing demands from immigrants on the social welfare and education systems and job losses that they link at least in part to a low-wage labor force coming over the border.
McCain, for example, appeared to distance himself from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat with whom he formed an alliance last year on an immigration bill that stalled in Congress.
“What I’ve tried to point out is we couldn’t pass the legislation,” McCain said. “So we have to change the legislation so it can pass.”