PHOENIX - Sen. John McCain worked to lower expectations surrounding his plan for immigration reform and hinted at difficult disagreements in Congress during an emotional town hall meeting on Monday at which people on both sides of the debate exchanged insults.
The raucous exchange illustrated the passion of the debate across the nation as Congress weighs what could be the biggest changes to immigration law in nearly 30 years.
At one point, a 25-year-old woman stood up and begged McCain and others not to call her and her family illegal immigrants and instead use the term undocumented. Some laughed at her, and one man called out, "I'd like to be called Irish."
In another testy exchange, a Hispanic businessman complained about being pulled over and asked for proof of citizenship near Tucson. "We are human; we are not slaves," he said. An elderly white woman yelled back, "But you're illegal."
The town hall meeting followed a more one-sided, but equally heated exchange at a town hall in February in suburban Phoenix, where McCain faced down rebukes from a largely older, white crowd opposed to immigration reform.
McCain said the so-called Gang of Eight, a bipartisan group of lawmakers working on immigration legislation in the Senate, has agreed on more work visas for workers and protections for illegal immigrants brought to the country as children, but declined to provide specific details. He cautioned that he was "guardedly optimistic" that Congress would pass reform this year, even as President Obama renewed his call to lawmakers Monday to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.
"Whether we will agree or not, I don't know," McCain told the more than 150 people gathered at a Phoenix community center.
McCain repeatedly urged civility during the meeting Monday, but he also stepped in and took sides.
He told the young woman who asked to be called an undocumented immigrant that he would continue to use the term "illegal" because it's accurate. Many civil-rights and Hispanic groups consider the term "illegal immigrant" offensive.
"You can call it whatever you want. I think there is a big difference between someone who does something illegal and not being documented," McCain said, earning cheers from those opposed to immigration reform.
When immigration activists stood up to thank him for trying to get something done on the issue, McCain warned, "You are not going to be completely happy with this legislation."
At another point, McCain and some Hispanic activists laughed at a man who asked how he and other immigration critics could stop "amnesty." McCain also cut off a Mexican woman who said immigrants should come to the country legally as she did.
"It's not acceptable to have 11 million people living in the shadows of this country," McCain said. "If you believe they are not living in the shadows, I'd like to know what the hell shadows are."
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