Honor bipartisan legacy of John McCain with immigration reform

Honor bipartisan legacy of John McCain with immigration reform

Republican senator, presidential candidate and war hero John McCainJohn Sidney McCainTrump gives nod to vulnerable GOP Sen. McSally with bill signing Democrats need a 'celebrity' candidate — and it's not Biden or Sanders Juan Williams: The high price of working for Trump MORE died on Saturday after a battle with brain cancer. Strangely enough, his death occurred nine years to the day and was caused by the same disease as his friend and colleague, Ted Kennedy.

Although different in many respects, Senators McCain and Kennedy were a model of the bipartisan cooperation that is possible when statesmen put the wellbeing of the nation ahead of short-term political calculations. One of the most well known results of that cooperation was their ultimately unsuccessful joint effort to comprehensively reform the U.S. immigration system. As an act of honor to their remarkable legacy, Congress should come together to pass legislation based on the McCain-Kennedy outline.


First introduced in the U.S. Senate in 2005, the comprehensive immigration reform bill that became known as simply “McCain-Kennedy” essentially brought together three primary components that have, with slight tweaks, been the pillars of all serious bipartisan immigration reform proposals since.

First, McCain-Kennedy focused on improving border security and enforcement. Though the details varied between their initial proposal and subsequent incarnations, all insisted that the U.S. government has a sovereign obligation to secure its borders — a responsibility at which, especially during those years, it was miserably failing. The proposal also focused resources on verifying that temporary visitors to our country depart at the appropriate time, as nearly half of immigrants in the U.S. illegally entered legally and overstayed their visa.

Second, McCain-Kennedy focused on facilitating legal immigration. By increasing the number of employer-sponsored visas, both permanent and temporary, the bill would have dramatically reduced the incentives to immigrating illegally while meeting the needs of the U.S. labor market. The bill also proposed expediting the process by which family members abroad are reunited to their U.S. citizen relatives — a process that, under current law, can sometimes literally last decades and often prompts the overstaying of visas.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Senators McCain and Kennedy insisted that immigrants in the country unlawfully must make amends for their violation of law through fines and then be given the chance to earn permanent legal status by meeting various requirements, including passing English and civics tests. (This provision did not apply to those with serious criminal infractions, who would face deportation).

While some critics lambasted the bill as “amnesty,” McCain rejected the description, arguing that the bill upheld the importance of the rule of law, requiring immigrants in the country illegally to pay fines, back taxes and processing fees, pass criminal background checks and meet employment and English requirements to earn permanent legal status and eventual citizenship.

In fact, McCain argued that the status quo was a “de facto amnesty,” as millions of immigrants were illegally working and living in a country that, quite rightly, was unwilling to deport them. Deportation would be both an economic and a humanitarian disaster, as many it would separate millions of U.S.-born children from their parents and by one estimate would cost an astounding $114 billion.

The bill was a compromise in the best sense of the word: Neither McCain nor Kennedy considered the bill to be their perfect ideal, but they both strongly believed it would be a massive improvement over the status quo, both for immigrants and for U.S. citizens. By negotiating across the aisle, they crafted a bill that could actually get the votes necessary to pass.

And a version of the bill, backed by President George W. Bush, did pass in 2006, but it never got a vote in the House. Another try in 2007 faltered in the Senate. In 2013, after Kennedy’s death, McCain joined three other Republicans and four Democrats to produce another bill modeled on his efforts with Kennedy. It passed with a supermajority of the votes in the Senate but, once again, failed to get a vote in the House.

As our nation comes together to mourn the loss of John McCain, there could be few more fitting tributes to his legacy than to revive the McCain-Kennedy plan for comprehensive immigration reform. By putting aside partisan differences, we could finally resolve one of the greatest policy challenges of our time in a way that honors the law, secures our borders, keeps families together, fuels economic growth and respects the great American tradition of being a refuge for those “yearning to breathe free” — a tradition McCain spent his entire life and legacy working to defend.

Matthew Soerens is the United States director of church mobilization for World Relief and the coauthor of “Welcoming the Stranger: Justice, Compassion and Truth in the Immigration Debate.”