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Originally published Sunday, June 29, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Election 2008

McCain, Obama vow immigration overhaul

Republican candidate John McCain promised Saturday that he would make immigration overhaul that includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal...

Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON — Republican candidate John McCain promised Saturday that he would make immigration overhaul that includes a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents "my top priority" if elected president.

He made the promise to a group of Latino elected officials as he and Barack Obama courted Hispanic voters, who are a key constituency in several Western swing states and in the perennial electoral battleground of Florida.

In a separate appearance before the same group later in the day, Obama charged that the Arizona senator had backed away from his longtime support of comprehensive immigration reform during Republican primaries under pressure from conservatives in his party.

McCain and Obama see opportunities for their campaigns among Latino voters.

Obama also sought to burnish his foreign-policy credentials Saturday, announcing a trip this summer to Europe and the Middle East that will include stops in Britain, France, Germany, Israel and Jordan. The Illinois senator already had said he would go to Afghanistan and Iraq, which he visited only once before, in January 2006.

McCain, who supports continuing the war in Iraq while Obama favors a troop drawdown, has been highly critical of Obama for the small amount of time he has spent on the ground in Iraq. McCain has visited Iraq several times, most recently during a trip this year that also included stops in most countries Obama plans to visit.

Despite a few war protesters who interrupted McCain, the candidates' appearances Saturday before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials focused on domestic issues, particularly immigration.

Asked if he would make comprehensive immigration overhaul and not just strengthening border enforcement a high priority, McCain said, "It will be my top priority yesterday, today and tomorrow," drawing sustained applause.

"There are 12 million people here and they are here illegally but they are God's children, they are God's children," McCain said, pounding the podium for emphasis.

Obama was less emphatic when asked the same question, although he also said he would support an immigration overhaul that included a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants. He said it would be "one of my priorities."

Yet Obama accused McCain, a co-author of immigration legislation that was defeated in Congress by heavy Republican opposition, of shifting his stance to focus instead on border enforcement to win support from his party's base.

"When he was running for his party's nomination, he walked away from that commitment. He said he wouldn't even support his own legislation if it came up for a vote," Obama said. "If we are going to solve the challenges we face, we can't vacillate, we can't shift depending on our politics."

An Obama spokesman said he was referring to a statement McCain made during the Jan. 30 Republican debate at the Reagan presidential library in which McCain was asked whether he would vote for comprehensive immigration legislation he had sponsored.

"No, I would not, because we know what the situation is today," McCain said at the debate. "The people want the border secured first."

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