Longform

Flip-Flopping John McCain Is No Political Profile in Courage

It wouldn't be a John McCain town hall without occasional off-color humor.

"There was a poll, a poll that had to do with favorability," the 76-year-old U.S. senator tells the crowd of about 300 in Oro Valley, a mostly white enclave just north of Tucson.

"Members of Congress ranked in this poll — on favorability — just below colonoscopy," comes the Henny Youngman-esque punchline.

Some adults chortle. A few groan. The high school kids of Basis Charter School, where the town hall is taking place on a weekday afternoon, look nonplussed.


COMMENTARY


The McCain Show: Arizona Senator John McCain Hits the Road (slideshow)

Welcome to the McCain show, which Arizona's senior senator's been on the road with lately in the Grand Canyon State, at places like Oro Valley and Sun Lakes, where the old outnumber the young.

Step right up and ask the irascible "straight shooter" anything at all. Whether it has to do with Syria, sequestration, gay marriage, or gun control, McCain has an answer, a quip, a comeback.

But in Oro Valley, the meat of the hour-long meeting is McCain's pitch for comprehensive immigration reform as envisioned by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators, of which he's one.

Actually, McCain isn't so much selling as telling his constituents this is the way things will be, assuming the 844-page bill he and the others have produced can make it out of the Senate and then emerge triumphant from the U.S. House of Representatives, where the extremist Tea Party faction remains a force to be reckoned with.

With the aid of charts, he notes that the number of apprehensions in the U.S. Border Patrol's Tucson sector is down and that the number of Border Patrol Agents is up, as is the amount of spending meant to secure the border.

The new bill would throw even more federal dollars at border militarization.

"Two and a half billion dollars will be spent on fencing and surveillance," McCain intones. "Another billion and a half will be spent on technology."

There would be drones and sensors, just like in Iraq and Afghanistan, he tells them. The goal: 90 percent of all illegal crossers apprehended.

Moreover, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security would be required to assure Congress that new border-security measures are working.

For the undocumented already in the United States, there would be a 13-year wait before they could apply for citizenship. During that time, they would have to jump through hoops: background checks, fines, payment of back taxes.

E-verify, the federal system that can check an employee's eligibility to work, would become mandatory for all employers in the United States. Unless someone has "a tamper-proof document," according to the senator, one showing eligibility, then he or she won't be able to get a job.

"The magnet that draws people to this country is jobs from the [southern border]," McCain states. "If the word gets out that if you come to this country [illegally], and you can't get a job because you don't have the right documentation, that will have a strong effect."

Unlike in other McCain town halls, the questions from the Oro Valley crowd on the Gang of Eight's immigration fix are mixed. Some express nativist sentiments, others a pro-immigrant mentality.

One elderly woman asks about the "anchor-baby problem," then regales McCain with a weird story about a drug lord coming to America for a day so his girlfriend can give birth to a U.S. citizen.

McCain acknowledges her concerns, despite her bigoted language.

He reminds her that the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says if you're born on U.S. soil, then you are an American — so the issue would have to be addressed from "a constitutional standpoint."

Good answer for a guy born on a naval base in Panama.

On this day, the senator is less forgiving of questions from the pro-immigrant side.

One woman asks McCain to consider reunification of families in the new plan. Currently, families often are separated during the deportation process, indefinitely.

"I'd be glad to examine it," he says. "But I have no sympathy for repeat crossers of our border."

State Senator Steve Gallardo drove down from Phoenix to ask McCain about shortening the 13-year wait to apply for citizenship. Gallardo also expresses concern that further border militarization would lead to additional deaths in the desert, as migrants take even more rugged and forsaken routes to avoid detection.

McCain is dismissive. Cutting down the 13-year wait is "not something I can sell to the Congress of the United States."

As for those crossing the Sonoran Desert, McCain says he doesn't want anyone to die, but neither does he want them coming across to begin with.

"I want them to know that if they go through that, there's not going to be a job for them here," he tells Gallardo.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons