TUCSON — For Senator John McCain, the Congressional summer recess has turned into a race against the clock, and against other Republicans. As the most senior member of the bipartisan Senate group that drafted the omnibus immigration bill pending in the House, he has spent his days prodding constituents to pressure Arizona’s Congressional delegation to support it.
Chris Hinkle for The New York Times
Senator John McCain, who helped draft legislation for an immigration overhaul, during a public meeting in Tucson last week.
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Mr. McCain knows how much is at stake. He has tried before — and failed — to push immigration changes through Congress, where political divisions on the issue run much deeper than party lines. And he knows how hard it will be to get anything done in 2014, an election year.
In the state that is at the center of the fight against illegal immigration, his campaign for the overhaul is an uphill battle. There are four Republicans among Arizona’s nine-member House delegation, and they are all adamantly against tackling an immigration overhaul with a single piece of legislation.
They have also been making their case in corners that are decidedly more conservative than Tucson, which is represented in the House by two Democrats and was the site of a town-hall style meeting held by Mr. McCain on Tuesday.
He faced questions there about the increasing emphasis on border security and a perceived lack of accountability among Border Patrol agents, who have been involved in at least 15 deadly shootings since 2010. But elsewhere, “what’s waiting for him is quite the opposite,” Representative Paul Gosar, a Republican whose district includes most of the rural western part of Arizona, said in an interview.
“We’ve said all along that we want immigration reform, but American voters, American taxpayers, are done with this bill that passed in the Senate because it’s a bill that came together with no debate,” said Mr. Gosar, who early this month hosted two meetings in Kingman, a Republican stronghold near the Nevada border, where increased security is central to the immigration debate. “What’s so scary about having a conversation with America?”
Mr. McCain is undeterred. Last week, to turn up the pressure, he urged evangelical pastors and Hispanic civic leaders to mobilize their communities. He also encouraged immigrant advocates to remain active, while reminding them to be respectful of those with differing opinions. A week ago, from a conference room in Phoenix, he issued a call for action to members of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce, saying, “We will not succeed if we don’t have the active support of our business leaders.”
Mr. McCain was quick to concede that the bill had shortcomings. “I don’t think that any legislation that is a series of compromises that need to be made is perfect,” he said at the public meeting here on Tuesday. But he is open to making one more concession, if that is what it will take: the “piecemeal approach,” as he put it, that is favored by Mr. Gosar and many other House Republicans who have been unwilling to throw their weight behind the all-encompassing legislation.
“We now have, for better or for worse, 11 million people who are residing in this country illegally,” Mr. McCain told more than 100 people at the meeting. “Does that mean they should be permanently punished?”
Pacing the floor, he turned on the charm, cracked jokes and more than once invoked religion to justify restructuring the country’s immigration laws, saying an overhaul was exactly what “a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles” would want.
Attempting to turn one of the main arguments used by opponents into ammunition for supporters, he told the audience that doing nothing amounted to “de facto amnesty.”
“There’s no way you’re going to round up everyone and send them across the border,” he said.
Addressing concerns about border security, he offered numbers outlining what the immigration bill before the House would provide: 20,000 additional Border Patrol agents, 350 miles of fence and billions of dollars for security, including drones and a radar system named Vader, which was developed to track Taliban fighters planting roadside bombs in Afghanistan.
When one man at the meeting brought up the deadly shootings by Border Patrol agents, he responded, “When these things happen, there has to be investigations, there has to be oversight by Congress, there has to be hearings.” (On Monday, the Justice Department exonerated agents involved in two shootings in 2011 in Douglas, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico, saying they had committed no crime.)
The unrelenting reality, Mr. McCain said later at the meeting, was that “sometime in the next few days, the Border Patrol is going to find more bodies in the desert” — migrants who died of dehydration or exposure in the extreme heat. Somewhere, he went on, smugglers were waiting to bring more people across the border, crossings during which “young women are treated in the most unspeakable fashion” and others are abandoned and left to die.
“What I respectfully ask you to do,” Mr. McCain said, “is to contact our members of Congress and tell them how important this legislation is.”
Immigration has been a politically difficult subject for Republicans, who have had to balance a need for change, which they have acknowledged, against the animosity among their most loyal supporters toward the idea of giving illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship. Many Republicans have avoided the face-to-face free-for-alls that stirred passion among voters in years past, choosing to conduct meetings by telephone or behind closed doors to focus only on immigration.
Representative Matt Salmon, a Republican who represents Mesa and other suburbs east of Phoenix, spent a lot of time in recent days talking to groups with different opinions on immigration, like border sheriffs and evangelical leaders. He also fielded phone calls at his district office, mostly from people telling him, “We don’t like this Senate bill at all, we don’t support it,” he said.
The immigration legislation as it stands “has many problems,” Mr. Salmon said, “starting by the fact that it’s willy-nilly throwing money at border security and there isn’t even a clear objective on what constitutes a secure border.”