Sen. John McCain called on Orange County Latino leaders Wednesday to support his immigration bill, saying it was time for them to "speak for people who cannot speak for themselves."
"You are the role models," McCain said to a mostly Latino audience of 340 gathered at the Hyatt Regency Irvine.
McCain (R-Ariz.) came to Orange County -- a hotbed of opposition to illegal immigration -- to garner support from the Hispanic 100, a 3-year-old organization that has organized events with President Bush, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and gubernatorial candidates.
McCain later attended a fundraiser for his political action committee in Los Angeles. He canceled an appearance in San Diego for GOP congressional candidate Brian Bilbray, apparently over their differences on illegal immigration.
In Orange County, McCain said Latino leaders must press Congress to approve a final measure that mirrored legislation he co-wrote with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass).
The Senate approved a version that increases border security but also allows illegal immigrants to become citizens by learning English and paying back taxes and a fine of at least $3,250.
The legislation contrasts sharply with a House bill that would criminalize illegal immigration, currently a civil offense.
Audience members generally lauded McCain's immigration plan.
Bernadette Medrano, executive director of the Santa Ana Education Foundation, which raises money for that city's public schools, said the House bill "was so far to the right that it was off the charts."
The Senate bill "starts the process to resolve the problem of illegal immigration," Medrano said.
She told McCain she feared that if it failed, a bill attached to it to legalize undocumented college students would also die.
Mike Gonzalez, president of Orange County's delegation to the Institute of Mexicans Abroad, a Mexican government advisory panel, said the Senate proposal would create formidable barriers to legalization but that "we as leaders can guide" applicants to find English classes and meet other requirements.
Jaime Soto, an auxiliary bishop with the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange, said border enforcement and legalization were both needed because without legalization, "it's just a bill that punishes."
Hispanic 100 President Carlos Olamendi, a restaurateur, said the Senate bill "is missing one component. We need to create a prosperity mechanism for Mexico.
"If not ... we will still see more immigration."
The result of the debate over what to do with an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants will "define what kind of nation we are," he said.
Referring to a poem by Emma Lazarus at the Statute of Liberty, McCain said, "The lady that holds the lamp beside the golden door, that is what kind of nation we are."