The continued flow of illegal immigration since the 1986 reform that provided a pathway to citizenship has nevertheless been a central concern cited by conservatives who refuse to sign on to a proposal that they argue would repeat the mistake. That argument helped kill the prior reform effort in 2007, which McCain also led.
"I think it's been a little bit over-hyped," he said Tuesday. "I think we have made significant improvements since 1986 on border security. There was practically none back then, and so there's been progress, but it's a lesson we should learn."
The Obama administration has beefed up border enforcement and deported undocumented immigrants at a record pace. Those efforts, combined with the economic downturn, have led to declining illegal immigration and reduced border violence during his first term.
Asked by TPM what specific outreach efforts Republicans are making to conservatives to ensure that the effort does not collapse as it did in 2007, McCain demurred, saying he's "trying to get the message to everybody."
Shortly before President Obama's nationally televised speech, McCain lauded the efforts of his 2008 rival in pursuing the politically daunting goal of immigration reform.
"His speech today is important -- his commitment to it," McCain said. "I think it's been very helpful, what he's doing." He said he expects a continued "partnership" between the White House and Congress to flesh out the legislation, "hopefully developing these details in conjunction."