Following intense criticism from conservatives for his immigration stance last year, McCain began pushing for "border security first" legislation that advocated securing the border before establishing a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants — a move that may have alienated many Latino voters.
Asked during a Republican primary debate in January if he would vote for his original immigration reform proposal if it came to the Senate floor, McCain said, "No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today. The people want the border secured first."
A coalition of Latino rights group advocating immigration reform that would provide a path toward citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants have urged McCain to clarify his position on immigration reform.
"There is confusion as to whether or not he is the same John McCain we knew a year or two ago or someone who has shifted as a result of the very ugly rhetoric and dynamics on this issue within his party," said Cecilia Muñoz of the National Council of La Raza Monday.
Muñoz argued McCain's previous emphasis on border security and enforcement worry many Latinos concerned about family members being separated during U.S. raids on illegal immigrants.
"The concern is really about whether or not he can stand up to his party," she said.
On Monday McCain continued to emphasize border security as a trigger for comprehensive reform legislation that includes a path toward citizenship for illegal immigrants.
"We had a plan, and still do, that is comprehensive, but we do need to have our borders secure, which we can do in fairly rapid fashion," McCain said, "So if we're going to pass the [comprehensive immigration reform] legislation, we have to give the American people the confidence that we're not only securing our borders because of the issue of illegal immigration, but my friends you know what is happening with the drug trafficking across our border which is killing young Americans."
Obama accused McCain Sunday of abandoning his effort toward comprehensive immigration reform during the Republican primaries to appeal to the conservative wing of the GOP.
"McCain used to buck his party on immigration by fighting for comprehensive reform – and I admired him for it," Obama told a conference of the National Council of La Raza Sunday in San Diego. "But when he was running for his party's nomination, he abandoned his courageous stance, and said that he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote. Well, I don't know about you, but I think it's time for a President who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular."
Obama said, "we need a practical solution for the problem of 12 million people who are here without documentation – many of whom have lived and worked here for years. That's why we need to offer those who are willing to make amends a pathway to citizenship."
The presumptive Democratic nominee, who lost Hispanics to Clinton in the Democratic primaries, focused his speech on his support for creating a path to citizenship for current illegal immigrants, creating new jobs and expanding health care coverage.