McCain's Immigration Dilemma

The job of Juan Hernandez is to win support for John McCain, particularly Latino votes. So it may seem odd that the campaign doesn't want its national director of Hispanic outreach to get any press. Repeated NEWSWEEK requests to interview Hernandez have been rebuffed or ignored. When a reporter suggested talking to Hernandez at a convention of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, where Hernandez was slated to appear June 28, his name was suddenly removed from the list of scheduled speakers. A NALEO spokesman, Eric Wagner, says someone from the McCain campaign called and asked to replace him, but didn't offer an explanation. (A McCain aide, who refused to be quoted discussing internal campaign strategy, later told NEWSWEEK that the campaign had never signed off on Hernandez as a speaker.)

Here's one possible reason: Hernandez is toxic to many conservatives. "He represents the opposite of everything conservative Republicans stand for," says a GOP strategist who didn't want to be quoted by name on a sensitive topic. The blond Mexican-American (with dual citizenship) was a senior official in the government of Mexican President Vicente Fox from 2000 to 2002. His main responsibility at that time was to advocate for undocumented Mexican immigrants in America—to help them get access to education and health services, and then citizenship. In 2006, Hernandez authored "The New American Pioneers: Why Are We Afraid of Mexican Immigrants?" Some conservatives have wanted McCain to deny Hernandez any role in the campaign. "Imagine a tree and people shaking it, trying to get him out," says the strategist. "Well, that tree went through a hurricane."

But one group's villain is another's hero. Hernandez has good ties to the Latino community, particularly church groups. McCain needs those votes, especially in swing states like Florida, New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada. "If the campaign shoves [Hernandez] to the side … it would cause an enormous amount of trepidation," says the Rev. Sam Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. "He's the only real bridge the campaign has with us."

A recent Gallup poll shows McCain with only 29 percent Hispanic support. He'd love to win at least 40, which George W. Bush got in 2004. But that was before the big debate on immigration reform, and disparaging conservative remarks that angered Latinos. McCain was at the center of the debate. He sponsored legislation that would have created a guest-worker program and provided a path for illegals to get citizenship, but later—under conservative pressure and with no chance of achieving reform—he said he wouldn't vote for his own bill.

Now McCain favors securing the borders—and then enacting reforms. But his emphasis shifts based on the audience. McCain has addressed three prominent Hispanic groups recently, and last week the campaign bought air time in Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada to show a TV spot called "God's Children." The ad features McCain at a GOP debate last year praising Latinos for their military service and urging compassion for illegal immigrants.

Hernandez's role in these efforts is unclear. McCain aide Mark Salter calls Hernandez an unpaid volunteer who "doesn't play a role in policy." McCain, when asked about Hernandez by GOP bloggers on a recent conference call, said he doesn't endorse all the views of supporters. But activists like Hernandez, McCain added, back his positions just by working on his behalf.

That may not satisfy critics. But conservatives don't have many options. They can vote for Bob Barr, running as a Libertarian, or they can stay home. Apparently, the campaign is hoping that even anti-immigration conservatives, facing a Barack Obama White House, will pull for McCain.