WASHINGTON — When it comes to Sens. Jeff Flake and John McCain of Arizona, longtime followers of the immigration debate could be forgiven for having deja vu.
After all, the sight of the two Republicans leading the charge on the divisive issue feels a lot like 2007, when McCain and Flake, then a House member, were each co-sponsors of their own immigration overhaul. McCain that year pressed his broad immigration plan with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and Flake joined with Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., to introduce a plan to tighten border security while giving illegal immigrants a chance for legal residency.
Then both Flake and McCain did something of an Arizona shuffle, trading in their push for calls to focus on border security. During a 2008 Republican presidential primary debate, McCain disavowed his own 2006 immigration proposal, and facing a challenge from the right during his 2012 Senate bid, Flake released a statement calling his previous broad approach to immigration reform "a dead end" until the border was secure.
Now Flake and McCain are back as Republican point men on the issue. Although their hopes of overhauling the nation’s immigration system ultimately died in 2007 on the Senate floor, the two have returned to the negotiating table, with the goal of finishing what they started.
"If you’re from Arizona and you’re not involved in trying to fix the immigration problem, then it’s tough to say you’re representing your state," Flake said in an interview. "You ought to be involved. I understand that some people don’t agree with the direction I want to go, but you’ve got to be involved."
Flake and McCain are part of a bipartisan group of eight senators working to produce legislation by the end of the March. Teamed with Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, the two senators from Arizona represent half of the Republican side of the effort.
But their journey has involved fits and starts. When facing a primary challenge during his 2010 Senate re-election bid from J. D. Hayworth, a conservative talk-radio host, McCain switched his focus from a comprehensive approach to border security, running an ad that ended with him walking along the state’s border and declaring, "Complete the dang fence." During his Senate race two years later, Flake similarly doubled down on border security.
"Those of us who have been pushing this for a decade, we ran into a brick wall, again and again," Flake said, explaining his 2012 stance. "And I think all of us recognized the political reality, that unless we addressed the border situation, then we don’t have the political oomph to get it across the line."
Critics say the men acted out of political expediency and gave in to pressure from the right, reneging on their calls for an immigration overhaul in favor of the more politically safe option of simply securing the border.
"Until this year, you simply could not run for office here without taking a hard right stand on immigration and have any hope of winning a primary," said Clint Bolick, who, along with former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, is releasing a book on immigration next month. "The instinct is not to leave any room on your right on immigration, and certainly McCain and Flake did that, notwithstanding their previous positions."
Flake and McCain, however, say they simply bowed to the facts on the ground: Their constituents would never accept a full-scale immigration bill until they first believed the border was secure. Now, they explain, not only is the border safer, but any plan they endorse will have border security "triggers" that must be met before any pathway to citizenship — a key component for most Democrats — could begin.
"I said we’ve got to secure the border, and I’m saying that now," McCain said. "I think border security has improved considerably, and I think that’s caused a change in attitude."
Even now, an immigration overhaul is not proving an easy sell in Arizona. According to news reports, at an immigration town-hall-style meeting in a Phoenix suburb Tuesday, McCain encountered angry and frustrated voters.
"We are a Judeo-Christian nation," he reminded the hostile crowd, as they shouted out that illegal immigrants should never be allowed to vote or become citizens, and that they should find their way back home.
Either way, immigration advocates are eager to welcome the Arizonans back into the fold.
"McCain and Flake have not only an enlightened view of how to solve this problem, but they also have the most practical view of how to solve this problem," said Frank Sharry, president of America’s Voice. "So I think they decided, Yes, we tacked to the right when the GOP in Arizona went a little crazy, but now is the time to craft a solution that voters will understand once they see that it works."
Sharry, who remembers the two senators’ past immigration efforts as "what you imagined in high school civics class," added that Flake and McCain seem to have come full circle on their promise for an immigration overhaul.
"They’re once again leaning into this issue in a courageous way, and they’re trying to lead," he said. "They always left themselves room to come back to reform, and if these guys hadn’t come back, I don’t think we’d been having this conversation today."
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McCain has always been something of maverick, bucking his party to reach across the aisle when he believes in a cause. Flake said for him, the issue was personal.
"I grew up on a ranch, on a farm, in northern Arizona, and I worked alongside mostly Mexican labor," Flake said. "And since that time, since I was a kid, I’ve never been able to lump all those who come across the border in the same class, in the criminal class."
Flake, who moved over to the Senate this past cycle, says he is still in touch with his former House colleagues and plans to be active in urging them to get behind broad immigration legislation.
So what is his pitch?
"I’ll make both first the substantive policy argument that this is good, that will we have leverage on border security we haven’t had before, and two, the process to a path to citizenship is long and arduous and this isn’t amnesty," he said. "And then three, the political reality."
Referring to Republican losses in November, Flake said: "There’s nothing like a bad election to focus the mind. We’ve been involved in this because we thought it was the best policy, but now if people aren’t willing to do it for the policy, they may be willing to do it for the politics."