"I feel for the people in Mexico because I know they want the best for the families," said Heather Sandstrom, 52, a retired TV newscaster. "I think it's great if they want to immigrate here.... We'd love to have you. But do it legally."
McCain used to say the same thing. In recent months, however, he has made the kind of provocative statements he once condemned. Instead of lamenting the "human tragedy" of illegal border-crossers dying in the desert, as he did in 2008, he accuses undocumented foreigners of deliberately crashing into other cars — apparently so they can flee when pursuing officers stop to tend accident victims.
"Arizona is under siege in many respects," McCain said in a recent Fox News appearance. "We have broken borders. We have people flooding across. We have drug cartels inflicting incredible damage."
In fact, statistics suggest that Arizona is safer than it was in the 1990s, when the tide of illegal immigration began to surge. New FBI figures rate Phoenix as one of the four safest big cities in America. From 2008 to 2009, data show, violent and property crimes fell nearly 9% in Mesa and surrounding suburbs.
For many, however, the numbers don't compute; the news is filled with crime stories linked to suspected illegal immigration or drug trafficking: the killing of a cattle rancher near the Mexico border, the shooting of a sheriff's deputy in Pinal County.
The Republican women lamented the changes they have seen over the last few years: more day laborers hustling on more street corners, schools increasingly burdened by children who can't speak English, hospitals filled with illegal immigrants receiving free medical care.
"It's just not fair," said retiree Carol Jacobsen, 71, who moved to Arizona from the Midwest in 2001. "They're getting a free ride."
In 2007, McCain and Kennedy tried to reach agreement on a new immigration bill. By then, McCain was seeking the GOP presidential nomination and being pummeled for his immigration stance; his campaign nearly collapsed that summer, about the same time overhaul efforts died on Capitol Hill.
Although McCain rallied to win the nomination, the outcry convinced him that border security had to be addressed before other steps could be considered.
Some who worked with McCain on comprehensive legislation hope he will resume talks once the election is past. (Assuming he wins.) "I don't think this has staying power with him, mentally or in his heart," Gutierrez said of McCain's current position.
That's what worries Son Hee Williamson, who emigrated — legally, she stresses — from South Korea nearly 40 years ago. She likes the senator's tougher approach to illegal immigration. "But I don't know if he's going to keep that promise" if reelected, the GOP activist said.
She is still deciding who to support in August.