Blowing in the wind.
Until recently Mr McCain’s record on immigration was so liberal that the National Council of La Raza has twice given him an award for his political work. He has long fought for “comprehensive” immigration reform—code for any change that would provide a route to citizenship for illegals. This effort culminated in the Immigration Reform Act of 2007, which would have allowed virtually all illegal immigrants to remain in the country on a special “Z” visa. After paying a fine and back taxes, they could apply for permanent residency and, eventually, citizenship.
Although the bill also contained money for border security and was supported by George Bush, many of Mr McCain’s fellow Republicans turned against a measure that opponents had successfully labelled an “amnesty”. It died in June, 2007 following an extraordinary barrage of phone calls by anti-immigration groups. The episode revealed one of the few clear lessons of the politics of immigration: the people who feel strongly about it often feel very strongly indeed.
When Mr McCain talks about the issue these days he sounds chastened. The failure of immigration reform taught him a lesson, he says—that Americans will tolerate a move to legalise illegal immigrants only if they are assured the border has been fixed. The senator plans to achieve that through a combination of walls and electronic surveillance. Only when the governors of the border states say the border is secure, will he do something about America’s 12m illegal immigrants.
Unless the governors are prepared to overlook quite a lot, it is unlikely that a President McCain would ever get around to the second stage of his plan. America’s border with Mexico is 2,000 miles (3,200km) long. It runs through cities, mountains, rivers, desert and Indian reservations. It is possible to slash crossings in a particular area by flooding it with guardsmen or building walls. It is not, however, remotely possible to seal the whole thing. Britain, an island nation with a more centralised government and a far tighter surveillance web, contains illegal immigrants from as far away as China.
Mr McCain’s move rightward on the immigration issue has given Mr Obama considerable room to manoeuvre. He has nonetheless held a fairly orthodox liberal line on illegal immigration. He supports giving illegals a route to citizenship and promises to make it a priority during his first year in office. During the primaries he expressed support for Eliot Spitzer, then the governor of New York, who was trying to grant driving licences to illegals. This is a totemic issue for liberal Hispanics, but unpopular with many others.
Like many politicians with roots in troubled cities, Mr Obama is much less keen on increasing the number of guest workers. This was also part of the immigration bill, but, thanks in part to Senator Obama, it was severely pruned even before the measure died. He backed a measure cutting the number of guest workers from 400,000 to 200,000. He introduced another measure that would have banned companies from employing guest workers in areas of high unemployment and required them to pay prevailing wages. He also supported a move to end the programme after five years. Since the programme was about the only thing many Republicans liked about the immigration bill, this ruined its chances.
Just as a President McCain would have to soften his stance on border security in order to pass an immigration bill, so a President Obama would have to tone down his anti-business rhetoric. Without support from businesspeople it will be extremely difficult to persuade Republican politicians to go along with reform. It is especially important to get farmers onside. They often depend on illegal labour and can be a heavy counterweight to nativist sentiments in rural areas. They also have powerful lobbyists in Washington.
The differences between the candidates’ positions are less striking than the contrast in how they speak about illegal immigration. Mr Obama talks of giving hope to families living in fear of raids and deportation. Mr McCain goes no further than a general expression of sympathy for “God’s children”. But he feels the pain of ordinary Americans who fret that they are being overrun.
Mr McCain’s stance on immigration is closer to that of the average American. Yet Mr Obama appears to have the edge. He can point out, fairly, that his opponent has flip-flopped on the issue. His liberal stance impresses Latinos, who remain angry at the Republican party for caving in to nativist pressure last year. They account for more than a tenth of the electorate in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, New York and Texas. They may decide extremely close races even in states where they are thin on the ground, like Wisconsin.
Immigration is also one of the few areas where Mr Obama’s race helps him. Blacks are more threatened by competition from immigrants, particularly illegal ones. Many fights in schools and prisons are between blacks and Latinos. As a result, a black politician who supports immigration reform comes across as particularly brave.
Yet the issue can turn, and quickly. An effective ad campaign could dredge up submerged fears of immigrants and push the issue close to the top of people’s concerns. As the economy sours, Americans will probably become less tolerant of those who compete for their jobs. An illegal immigrant could commit a horrific, widely-publicised crime. Working-class whites are already wary of Mr Obama. If immigration suddenly rises from the swamp, they may well run straight into the arms of the newly tough Mr McCain.