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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

Debate over immigration tends to be divisive, passionate and loud. But don't expect any rip-roaring soundbites from John McCain or Barack Obama about it on the presidential campaign trail. NPR's Jennifer Ludden explain.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: If you're looking for defining policy differences this campaign season, you won't find them on immigration.

Mr. ANGELO PAPARELLI (Immigration Lawyer): This is no disrespect to the candidates, but their positions are as distinct as Tweedledum's from Tweedledee's.

LUDDEN: Immigration lawyer Angelo Paparelli supports those positions. He notes both McCain and Obama have voted for stepped-up enforcement at the border and in the workplace, for expanded guest worker programs, and for a widespread legalization for some 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., provided they pay a fine, pay back taxes and learn English.

Mr. PAPARELLI: From a distance, we are hopeful that either of these candidates will do something in the cause of immigration reform to fix our broken system.

LUDDEN: In fact, immigration reform has been near and dear to John McCain. The main path of illegal migration in recent years has run right through his home state of Arizona. In 2006, the senator cosponsored the bipartisan McCain-Kennedy immigration bill. And even as he tells audiences today about the need to crack down on illegal immigrants, he adds:

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): But they're also God's children, and we have to do it in a humane and compassionate fashion.

(Soundbite of applause)

LUDDEN: But that line doesn't always get him applause. Conservative Republicans derided McCain's 2006 bill as amnesty. A grassroots backlash followed, and by 2007, McCain backed down. When the Senate crafted immigration legislation that year, he was nowhere to be seen. And this year, McCain virtually rejected his own bill when asked about it by NBC's Tim Russert.

Mr. TIM RUSSERT (NBC News Show Host): Would you as president sign it?

Sen. MCCAIN: Yeah, but the lesson is it isn't won. It isn't going to come. It isn't going to come. The lesson is they want the border secured first.

LUDDEN: These days, McCain says he would have border state governors certify secure borders, and only then move on to expanding legal visas. Not everyone's impressed with his tougher talk.

Dr. STEVE CAMAROTA (Center for Immigration Studies): John McCain is emotionally invested in amnesty for illegal immigrants - period.

LUDDEN: Steve Camarota is with the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates lower immigration levels. He thinks either a President McCain or a President Obama might temper some of the more aggressive immigration enforcement of the Bush administration. Obama referred to this in an interview last year with the editorial board of the Des Moines Register.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): I'm not particularly impressed with raids on plants that grab a handful of undocumented workers and send them home, leaving the company in a position where it can just hire the next batch. And I don't think we've been serious about employer sanctions.

LUDDEN: Analyst Camarota says even if Obama or McCain would ease some enforcement measures, there are others that would be difficult to reverse.

Dr. CAMAROTA: You can't unhire Border Patrol agents. If you add 3,000 agents, you then can't say in the next budget, well, let's take those 3,000 agents away.

LUDDEN: But once in office, would either a President McCain or a President Obama make immigration a priority? Lawyer Angelo Paparelli says there's the optimist in him, and then there's the realist.

Mr. PAPARELLI: Immigration has been described as the third rail of American politics, but more vividly by some as a downed power line that anyone who touches it will be electrified.

LUDDEN: Which is why you're not likely to hear either candidate bring up immigration between now and November, unless someone else makes them talk about it.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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