Arnold Schwarzenegger

Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger discusses immigration reform Tuesday at the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. (Nick Ut / Associated Press / April 30, 2013)

Comprehensive immigration reform will pass the House of Representatives if reluctant Republicans are convinced that it is a matter of political survival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said at USC on Tuesday.

In conversations with other lawmakers, McCain said, he appeals to their “better angels” in arguing that legal status be granted to the 11 million immigrants who are in the country without proper documentation. But he also appeals to his colleagues’ “baser instincts” -- that is, the need to attract the Latino voters who abandoned the GOP in the last presidential election.

“This will not gain one single Hispanic vote by passing this bill, but what it will do is put us on a playing field where we can compete,” McCain said. “If we can’t do this, you can’t begin the conversation with our Hispanic voters, and all you have to do is the math.”

McCain appeared on a panel with another senator, Democrat Michael Bennet of Colorado, at the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy. Both are members of the bipartisan Gang of Eight, which drafted a bill that includes a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants.

In his opening remarks, which paralleled an op-ed he wrote for Politico in support of immigration reform, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to his role as one of the country’s most famous immigrants.

Since he was a teenager in his native Austria, he said, he was determined to come to the United States. His successes as an actor and a politician were “only possible because I immigrated to the one place where nothing is impossible,” he said.

As governor, Schwarzenegger said, he met many immigrants who were trying to achieve their dreams even though they were not in the country legally.

“These are all very hardworking people. They have a dream. They want to make their dream a reality,” he said.

Bennet expects the Senate bill to come up for a vote in June.

“I really worry that if we don’t get this done now, it’s going to be a very long time before we get this done, and it’ll be one more self-inflicted wound holding American workers back,” he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who spoke later in the program, said immigration reform would boost the city’s economy because many small businesses are started by immigrants.

“It’s because it goes to the heart of the economic future of our city, the social cohesion of our city,” Villaraigosa said. “That’s why now is the time for real immigration reform.”

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Twitter: @cindychangLA

cindy.chang@latimes.com