WASHINGTON - Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., urged the House Thursday to act on immigration reform, even if that means moving on its own piecemeal approach to the problem rather than the Senate's comprehensive reform bill.
McCain, an architect of that Senate bill, told a Georgetown University forum that the estimated 11 million people who are in this country illegally are here to stay, and that they will "self-deport … when pigs fly."
"It's not going away, the issue is not going away, unless you believe somehow 11 million people are somehow going to … self-deport," said McCain, who gave the keynote address at the 10th annual Immigration Law and Policy Conference at Georgetown.
He called on the House to move forward on immigration reform, which has been stalled in that chamber since this summer.
"We respect your views, we respect your actions, but please act, please act," McCain said.
The Senate in June passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill on a bipartisan 68-32 vote. McCain and Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., were two of the so-called "gang of eight" senators - four Democrats and four Republicans - who crafted that bill.
The bill, just under 1,200 pages long, calls for a revamped visa system and a potential pathway to citizenship for those immigrants who are in this country illegally. It also greatly increases resources for border security, and makes the other benefits in the bill dependent on a secure border.
But the issue has stalled in the House, where Speaker John Boehner has said he will pursue a "step-by-step process" to fix the "broken immigration system."
Rather than one large bill, House Republicans have introduced several smaller measures that address separate pieces of the larger issue.
In an email Thursday, Boehner's office stood by that piecemeal approach. An aide would not predict when the House bills might come up for a vote.
McCain said Thursday that he would not reject the piecemeal approach, he just hopes the House will do something.
"If that's all they can do, and that's what they think the best way to do it, I think I would be glad to look at that as well," McCain said.
But he emphasized that any measure must ultimately include a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumentd immigrants in this country. Without an opportunity for citizenship, even people here legally could become alienated, he said.
"If you don't give people a chance to be full and contributing members of a society, it does not work," McCain said.
He called on fellow Republicans to face "reality."
"If Republicans were part of the passage of comprehensive immigration reform, we would be on a level playing field to be able to compete for Hispanic voters," he said.
He said he is ready to fight Democrats for Hispanic voters, but "we can't compete unless we get the issue done." And he is still confident something can be done in this Congress.
"I will remain optimistic," he said. "I have to."