Tougher Enforcement May Jeopardize Support

By Michael A. Fletcher and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Both Republicans and Democrats risk alienating coveted supporters as they attempt to find the right balance between toughening enforcement and expanding legal opportunities for millions of low-skill foreign workers to take jobs in the United States.

As the Senate begins debate on revamping the nation's immigration laws, the issue poses multiple challenges for both political parties, while offering no clearly expedient solution. Two huge electoral prizes, the Southwest and Florida, are potentially up for grabs, as are millions of Hispanic votes elsewhere. But also in play are the votes of angry residents in border states and beyond who feel overwhelmed by the rising tide of illegal immigration.

"In some ways, the rhetoric of this debate is as important politically as the policy that eventually emerges," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington research organization. "If there is an impression that the leadership of one party or another is really harsh and punitive, you open up possibilities."

A sudden spate of rallies on the streets of Phoenix, Los Angeles, Detroit and elsewhere -- all in protest of a possible federal crackdown on illegal workers -- suggests that immigration may be an issue that galvanizes this increasingly vital, but difficult to reach voting bloc.

Immigration has mobilized Hispanic voters in the past, most notably in California after the 1994 passage of Proposition 187, a voter initiative to cut off public services for illegal immigrants. Enactment of the law was blocked by the courts, but the fact that then-Republican Gov. Pete Wilson supported the measure swung California's huge Hispanic vote firmly into the Democratic camp for years.

At the same time, however, lawmakers face the potential ire of voters who want more done to crack down on the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants now in the country. The problem led Democratic governors in both Arizona and New Mexico to declare states of emergency in counties along the border with Mexico to combat illegal immigration. Talking points circulating among Democrats on Capitol Hill stress, "if you do not seem credible on enforcement, you may lose credibility which will jeopardize other components of immigration reform."

Tougher enforcement is an idea that resonates among frustrated voters, particularly in parts of the country where public services including schools and hospitals are strained by the influx of new residents. In 2004, Arizona voters ratified a ballot initiative similar to 187, despite the opposition of Gov. Janet Napolitano, a popular Democrat, and Sen. John McCain, a popular Republican.

Views on immigration break into two camps. At one end are law-and-order types, mostly conservative Republicans, who want to tighten border security and step up enforcement against illegal workers. The business community, the Roman Catholic Church, many Republicans and most Democrats occupy the other camp -- joined, notably, by President Bush. Although they generally support tougher enforcement, they also want to change federal law to allow illegal workers to gain legal status so they can continue to fill many low-skill jobs that they believe would otherwise go vacant. Moreover, they say, welcoming outsiders is a core American ideal.

"Each generation of immigrants brings a renewal to our national character and adds vitality to our culture," Bush said in a speech yesterday. "Newcomers have a special way of appreciating the opportunities of America, and when they seize those opportunities, our whole nation benefits."

But Bush's position has split Republicans. Former White House aide David Frum, writing on the Web site of the National Review, said of the president's proposal: "His version of immigration reform can only pass Congress with Democratic votes, and there is zero possibility that the Democrats will help him -- but every likelihood that they will egg him on to incite a Republican civil war on the issue that most bitterly divides the president's party."

The competing camps on overhauling immigration laws do not break down along the usual ideological or regional lines. In Arizona, for instance, the two Republican senators -- Jon Kyl and McCain -- both consider themselves conservatives. But McCain champions a bill that includes the guest-worker program Bush has outlined, which would allow participants to apply for legal residency without returning to their home countries. The bill also would substantially increase the number of green cards, granting permanent U.S. residency to low-skill workers.

Kyl, meanwhile, supports a guest-worker program but would provide no avenue for citizenship and would force workers to go home for a year before reapplying. He also wants to build fences in urban areas, hire more border control agents and crack down on employers who hire illegal immigrants, to get a handle on illegal immigration.

Kyl's view is that the current economic pressures for immigrant labor could subside in the future, costing legal American workers jobs. "Get ready for a real tough time when American workers come to your office and say, 'How did you let this happen?' " he admonished colleagues on the Judiciary Committee as they debated the bill yesterday.

Many advocates believe that any successful legislation would have to bridge both camps. "I don't believe this is a zero-sum issue for us," said Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee. "It is absolutely possible for us to be pro-immigrant and pro-law enforcement."

Brent A. Wilkes, national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, an advocacy group, said a balanced approach is the only one that would be accepted by much of the Hispanic community.

"The average Latino immigrant cannot understand why if they work hard and play by the rules, they can't be treated like previous immigrants and be given a legal avenue to come here." Members of both parties believe that at the root of the immigration debate is a fear among voters that illegal immigration is a piece of a bigger, more threatening force: a loss of control over national security as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. What "motivates most Americans is the border insecurity problem that we have," said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), who is trying to thread the needle between the two camps.

Democrats have mostly stood back from the debate and allowed the warring Republican factions to simmer. Documents circulating among senior Democratic Senate staffers note that Republican voters view immigration as a much bigger problem than do Democrats.

The Senate is expected to debate the immigration bill for two weeks -- an exceptionally long time for legislation, particularly in an election year, and only the beginning of a long road of negotiations with the House, which passed legislation cracking down on illegal immigrants but offering no guest-worker program.

The tenor and time allotted to the debate reflect a broad consensus that immigration is one of the most urgent and fundamental issues confronting Congress. "This is a complex problem," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "Where is home and where do we want home to be?"

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