Story Highlights• Conservatives criticize Sen. John McCain for backing immigration reform
• Plan to give illegal immigrants visa "amnesty," conservatives say
• Arizona Republican says doing nothing amounts to "silent amnesty"
• McCain accuses fellow candidate Mitt Romney of pandering on the issue
From Candy Crowley and Sasha Johnson
CNN Washington Bureau
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Manchester, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Immigration reform is proving to be a divisive issue for the Republican Party. But few prominent Republicans are feeling the heat like Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a fact that prompted the 2008 contender to address the issue head-on Monday.
"I'm not running to do the easy things," McCain told the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in a speech. "I defend with no reservation our proposal to offer the people who harvest our crops, tend our gardens, work in our restaurants, care for our children and clean our homes a chance to be legal citizens of this country."
McCain earned the ire of conservatives when he co-sponsored immigration reform legislation with Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, last year -- a proposal critics charged provided amnesty to illegal immigrants.
The current iteration of the Senate's immigration compromise has prompted similar outcries, but does not have McCain's name attached to it, although the senator said he was heavily involved in its negotiation. (Watch McCain ally Sen. Lindsey Graham try to sell the immigration plan in South Carolina )
"Illegal immigration and our porous borders are problems that we have, to our shame, ignored for too long because it was too hard and politically risky to solve," McCain said. "A number of us -- Republicans and Democrats and the president, have tried to meet this responsibility.
"We have proposed a remedy that, while imperfect as all compromises are, is nevertheless a serious, comprehensive and practical attempt to secure our borders," he said.
The Arizona senator's efforts at immigration reform and his high-profile visibility on the issue are dogging him on the presidential campaign trail.
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney not-so-subtly attacked McCain's attempts at reform in a debate last month saying, "McCain-Kennedy, what it did is said that people who are here illegally get a special pathway ... And my fear is that McCain-Kennedy would do to immigration what McCain-Feingold has done to campaign finance and money in politics, and that's bad."
Taking the issue head on
McCain's campaign concedes the fire from the conservative wing of their party does not help them politically, but they said they are pragmatic.
The campaign knew the senator was not going to get a lot of "air cover" on this issue, so the decision was made to have him deal with it in Monday's speech and before Tuesday's Republican debate in New Hampshire.
To try and duck the issue, the campaign said, would not be in line with McCain's character.
Still, McCain's position may cost him with the very conservatives he's been trying to woo.
"There's this trust issue with conservatives and McCain and it's here [in New Hampshire] as well as elsewhere in the country," said Dante Scala, an associate professor at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, the site of Tuesday night's GOP presidential debate.
"The problem is every time something comes up or seems a little bit out of the mainstream of conservative thought, conservatives say 'oh see, this is another reason we can't trust him,' " Scala said.
In his speech Monday, McCain defended and explained his position and also hit back in what a campaign source said was a lob directed mainly at Romney: "The choice is between doing something, imperfect but effective and achievable, and doing nothing."
"I would hope that any candidate for president would not suggest doing nothing," McCain said. "And I would hope they wouldn't play politics for their own interests if the cost of their ambition was to make this problem even harder to solve ... pandering for votes on this issue, while offering no solution to the problem, amounts to doing nothing -- and doing nothing is silent amnesty."