McCain’s Dangerous Anti-Immigration Flip-Flop

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Continuing his lurch rightward in the face of a tough Republican primary challenge, Sen. John McCain has endorsed a draconian immigration bill that’s close to passage in Arizona. The state-level bill, which the Arizona Senate passed on Monday, would arguably create one of the harshest immigration laws in the country, requiring police to question and arrest anyone on the “reasonable suspicion” that he or she was in the country illegally. A person could be arrested simply for not carrying proof of citizenship or for knowingly transporting undocumented immigrants for any reason. If the bill clears the Arizona House and is signed into law, it could embolden anti-immigrant activists and officials elsewhere in the country.

McCain gave a big thumbs up to the legislation on Monday, describing it “a very important step forward… I can fully understand why the legislature would want to act.” But civil liberties advocates have questioned its constitutionality, arguing that it would allow racial profiling and would turn Arizona into a police state. (Currently, undocumented presence is a civil federal offense, and state and local officials can only ask about immigration status if a person is suspected of a crime.) Even some state and local police officials oppose the legislation out of concerns that it would deter immigrants from coming forward as witnesses to crimes.

The motivation for McCain’s rightward shift is obvious. As I explained last week, the Arizona senator authored the Senate’s last comprehensive reform bill, which included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. His Tea Party-backed primary opponent, J.D. Hayworth, has attacked him relentlessly for doing so. Hayworth has been endorsed by Americans for Legal Immigration (ALIPAC), a right wing anti-immigrant group that’s trying to stir up Tea Partiers to revive the conservative crusade against “amnesty.”

In protecting his right flank, McCain is encouraging a bill that would divert valuable resources away from policing crime and pour them into hounding Arizona residents about their immigration status. And the endorsement of a high-profile national politician could also encourage similar efforts elsewhere. In fact, McCain and Jon Kyl, Arizona’s junior senator, jointly introduced a bill to the US Senate on Monday that would send 3,000 National Guard troops to patrol the border—an intervention that critics say would be both costly and ineffective.

Both the Arizona measure and the Senate bill are also a reminder of the dangers of congressional inaction on immigration reform. In the absence of a push for a comprehensive solution on the federal level, that leaves reactionaries, ideologues, and loudmouths like Tom Tancredo—who wants to send the President “back” to Kenya— to step into the vacuum.

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