Feb. 7, 2008, 11:59PM
Border-control activists bemoan McCain's rise
Immigration hard-liners feel GOP frontrunner too soft on their issue
By JAMES PINKERTON
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
They've set up surveillance on the Rio Grande and filmed illegal immigrants crossing the river by night.
They've mapped border crossing spots from Texas to California in airplanes mounted with cameras. They've confronted day laborers on street corners and parking lots in Houston.
But now activist groups working to limit illegal immigration are stunned and dismayed by the rise of Arizona Sen. John McCain as the likely Republican presidential nominee — and a threat to their work and cause.
In their world, McCain is a traitor because he fought for a landmark bill last year that offered a path to citizenship for undocumented residents, a move some critics derided as "amnesty."
Members of these groups were discouraged Thursday after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney — who took a hard line against illegal immigration — dropped out of the presidential race.
Some now joke about voting for Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton. Others say it's time to switch to Republican Rep. Ron Paul, while others hope that former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee can somehow surge to the fore.
''There is no scenario anymore, everything is gone," lamented Shannon McGauley, founder and president of the Texas Minutemen, whose members have conducted operations on the Southwest border.
Curtis Collier, the head of U.S. Border Watch in Houston, said McCain's ascendancy, simply put, ''is bad for us, I'll be honest."
''None of the candidates are strong on immigration, and Romney probably was the strongest," said Collier, whose group regularly confronts day laborers at informal hiring centers around Houston. ''Now that he's gone, many of our issues are in trouble."
Focus turns to local races
The depth of the negative feelings for McCain can be seen in comments by conservatives such as commentators Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter, who liken the GOP candidate to his Democratic counterparts.
''I don't see much difference between Hillary and McCain on immigration," said Louise Whiteford, president of Texans for Immigration Reform in Houston, which has 400-plus members. ''That doesn't give us much of a choice."
Consequently, Whiteford said her organization will begin focusing on local elections to advocate their agendas.
Meanwhile, pro-immigrant groups insist that Republican presidential candidates who hoped to win primaries by taking a strong anti-illegal immigrant stance have learned a bitter lesson.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said Republicans are committing political suicide, dividing their party, mobilizing immigrant voters and alienating swing voters who want a solution to illegal immigration.
''The anti-immigrant dog barks, but it doesn't bite," Sharry said. "There's a lot of noise from anti-immigrant activists, but they can't produce a lot of votes."
Romney's tough talk on illegal immigration failed to win him many primaries. In fact, it likely hurt him with a key voting bloc. Exit polls in the Florida primary show that McCain received 54 percent of the Hispanic GOP vote, while Romney took 14 percent. Hispanics in numerous surveys have said they are troubled by hard-line approaches to immigration.
The attempt at making immigration a wedge issue simply backfired, Latino activists say.
''It has been remarkably effective in the mobilization of Latino voters," said Cecilia Munoz, vice president of National Council of La Raza. ''There is lots of clear evidence this is a community that feels it's under attack."
In a speech Thursday in Washington, D.C., before the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, McCain was jeered when he defended his immigration record.
He assured the conservative group ''it would be among my highest priorities to secure our borders first," before addressing other aspects of immigration.
The senator acknowledged in his speech that many in the audience have disagreed strongly with some of his positions.
"It is my sincere hope that even if you believe I have occasionally erred in my reasoning as a fellow conservative, you will still allow that I have, in many ways important to all of us, maintained the record of a conservative," he said.
In Arizona, state Rep. Russell Pearce, who helped pass four recent state referendums to limit bail, jury awards and public benefits to illegal immigrants, said McCain is out of step not only with his conservative base, but with mainstream America.
''That's the bridge McCain has to fix," Pearce said. ''McCain has been on the wrong side of this issue. And it's not just his base — 80 percent of Americans want the border secured."
Pearce said McCain must apologize for ''pushing amnesty" and demonstrate to the American people he will put them, and the rule of law, first.
Some hope for Huckabee
Rebecca Forest, a member of the Immigration Reform Coalition of Texas in Austin, said she would like anybody but McCain. And she says the best "anybody" left is Huckabee. She hopes Huckabee reviews his immigration stance, hires top-notch campaign advisers and returns to the offensive.
Glenn Spencer, an Arizona rancher who founded the American Border Patrol in 2002, maps the border from a small private plane. He is outraged that the federal government has allowed the border to remain open for so long but says McCain's pledge to get tough may help his cause.
''He is much more acceptable now that he's taken this very clear position on the border," Spencer said. ''There's no way he can back out on this."