Immigration figured as a prominent subject in the United States' 2008 presidential primaries but was almost nonexistent in the general-election contest between Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain.
A polarizing issue during congressional debates in 2006 and 2007, immigration had been anticipated to be a wedge issue in the 2008 elections, in large measure because of its expected power to energize both the conservative base and the Hispanic vote.
And, for a time, it surfaced during the Republican primaries as candidates Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and Rudy Giuliani, in particular, vied to see who could sound toughest on illegal immigration. But the issue also proved its ability to sting, with Romney dogged by accusations that he employed unauthorized-immigrant landscapers at his house, and he and Giuliani accused of presiding over "sanctuary" cities.
In the Democratic primaries, the issues of immigration made its first noteworthy appearance when, during a debate in October 2007, Senator Hillary Clinton stumbled in her answer to a question about driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants.
But the issue faded, swamped by greater public concern and candidate attention on the war in Iraq, rising energy prices, and health care. Its disappearance from the debate marked something of an unusual turn of events.
After all, millions of immigrants and their supporters turned out in the streets in cities across America in 2006 demanding legalization and opposing a House bill that would have criminalized illegal immigration. Also, immigration figured prominently in many 2006 congressional races, with Democrats reaching out to Hispanic voters alienated by the law-and-order, no-amnesty wing of the Republican Party, which was struggling to reconcile that same wing with proimmigration business interests.
Furthermore, immigrant-advocacy groups capitalized on the energy from the 2006 demonstrations by launching naturalization and voter-registration initiatives to make immigrant voters a factor in the 2008 election.
And in June 2007, for the second year in a row, the Senate failed to pass comprehensive immigration legislation amid sharp partisan divides and President Bush's inability to persuade members of his own party to back a major rewrite of immigration law.
McCain, the Arizona Republican — who coauthored the 2006 comprehensive reform bill with Democrat Ted Kennedy and cosponsored a similar bill in 2007 — suffered the wrath of his party's conservative base as his primary campaign foundered badly over immigration before recovering.
McCain recognized that anger and backed away from his support for the legislation, hammering instead on the importance of border enforcement.
McCain's nomination in early March arguably neutralized immigration as a campaign issue, and Obama's emergence as the Democratic nominee in June effectively put it to rest. Neither candidate had to use immigration as a differentiating point because they fundamentally agreed that comprehensive immigration reform was necessary. Press coverage shifted to the nominees' courting of Latino voters.
By mid-September, the economic crisis trumped all other issues as Americans became increasingly concerned with keeping their homes, jobs, and retirement funds.
Immigration was relegated to a bit role in the final months of the campaign, with McCain and Obama using the issue exclusively in Spanish-language media, running ads accusing the other of blocking comprehensive immigration reform.
Obama handily won the Latino vote: 67 percent of Hispanic voters supported Obama while only 31 percent voted for McCain, according to an exit-poll analysis by the Pew Hispanic Center. McCain's poor showing among Hispanics was largely attributed to the fact that other Republican politicians were seen as promoting anti-immigrant sentiment.