Sen. John McCain pushed for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the 11 million people estimated to be living in the country illegally during a town-hall meeting Tuesday in Tucson.

“I’m asking you to consider that we have an unacceptable situation as it is today and we need to all work together no matter where we are in the political spectrum to try to resolve this issue,” he told a group of about 150 people packed inside a conference room in the Herbert K. Abrams Public Health Center, on the city’s south side.

The Senate passed comprehensive immigration reform legislation in June but House leaders have said they will instead draft their own series of bills. Initially, the Senate’s Gang of Eight and the White House pushed against a piecemeal approach but have now said they would be fine with it.

“I would like to see the House of Representatives pass legislation, whether it is piecemeal or however they want to. I’m not trying to tell them how they should do it,” McCain said Tuesday. He said the focus should be on producing legislation that can pass in both the Senate and the House and be signed by the president.

He spoke for about 15 minutes on immigration before taking questions.

“I don’t think that any legislation that is a series of compromises that need to be made is perfect, but I also would submit to you that …” he paused as he tried to fix the microphone, “that this microphone is provided to you by the Democratic National Committee,” he finished to a laughing audience.

McCain went over the general provisions of the bill: people would have to pay fines, learn English and get in back of the line to become U.S. citizens. The border would also need to be secured.

“There are people in this room who will say the border is not secure,” he said. “The border is not secure but it’s a lot more secured than in 1986 when we gave amnesty to 3 million people and the answer to border security is technology.”

Ana Karina Rodriguez, with Mi Familia Vota, asked what people in Arizona can do to help the community understand the importance of the bill. The national organization works with the Latino community on civic engagement.

“You need to be active, but I urge you to be respectful,” McCain said. “It’s especially important on an issue as emotional as this.”

He also described comments from Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, that for every illegal immigrant who is valedictorian, “there’s another 100 out there who weigh 130 pounds and they’ve got calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert,” as outrageous.

“It’s very harmful to the dialogue and the environment we want to foster in America where we are all God’s children,” he said.“You got to be respectful of everybody’s views and it’s taken me a while to learn that.”

Although he answered questions on everything from sexual assault in the military to the budget, guns and immigration dominated the more than an hour-long meeting.

Victims of gun violence thanked McCain for his support to strengthen background checks on gun sales and asked what else they could do to bring attention to the issue.

The first question McCain took was from John Green, father of Christina-Taylor Green, the 9-year-old girl killed on Jan. 8, 2011 at a constituent meeting with then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords outside a Safeway store. Six people were killed in the shooting and 13 were wounded, including Giffords.

“Thank you first of all for all of your support. Since we lost Christina you were right there with us,” he said, and asked if they could have a meeting with him and Sen. Jeff Flake to talk about “common-sense solutions” to background checks.

“I’d be honored to do so,” McCain responded.

On other issues, McCain called “disgraceful” the $13 million the federal government spent on 21 houses in Ajo to attract Customs and Border Protection personnel reported this week by The Arizona Republic and said the waste couldn’t be justified, “people should be fired.”

On the Justice Department’s decision not to file charges against two Border Patrol agents who shot and killed two teens along the border: “Every citizen in this country has the benefit of innocence until proven guilty,” he said, and added thorough investigations need to be conducted and, if needed, congressional oversight.

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at or 573-4210. On Twitter: @Perla_Trevizo