Allen, Webb Are Not Spotlighting Their Positions on Immigration

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

Millions of protesters took to the streets this year to demand amnesty for unauthorized immigrants. Congress debated immigration bills for months before approving a 700-mile border fence. In several fiercely contested political races nationwide, illegal immigration has taken center stage.

The candidates in Virginia's Senate race, meanwhile, have barely touched it.

Republican Sen. George Allen and his challenger, Democrat James Webb, have stark differences on the issue. While both call for sealing the borders, Allen brooks no sympathy for illegal immigrants and favors guest-worker plans. Webb supports legalization for some immigrants and opposes broad programs for temporary foreign labor.

Analysts say the relative absence of immigration in the race reflects the increasingly tricky proposition of campaigning on polarizing topics, especially in a traditionally conservative state with a changing political landscape. In recent elections, Northern Virginia voters' allegiance has shifted toward Democrats.

"Statewide in Virginia, I think it's a lot thornier," said Mark J. Rozell, a public policy professor at George Mason University. "With the divide . . . it's really hard to say that someone can play this issue one way and know that he's going to benefit."

Studies show that Virginia's illegal immigrant population has swelled in recent years and that growth has been densest in Northern Virginia. Herndon voters this spring ousted Town Council members who backed a hiring site for immigrant day laborers, but Republican Jerry W. Kilgore lost the Northern Virginia suburbs -- and the governor's race -- after a campaign in which he vowed, among other things, to crack down on illegal immigrants.

In a recent Washington Post poll, 59 percent of likely Virginia voters said immigration would be important in their choice for senator -- but only after issues such as terrorism, Iraq, the economy, ethics in government, health care and taxes.

Nationally, most candidates campaigning on immigration are of the tough-on-illegal-immigration persuasion, like Allen. But Allen has battled accusations of insensitivity to minorities since the summer, when he called an Indian American campaign worker for Webb a "macaca."

"Immigration, like it or not, is an issue that touches on race," said Steven A. Camarota, research director at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors limiting immigration.

Asked about the Herndon day-labor center at a Richmond debate this month, Allen responded: "We should not be rewarding illegal behavior because all that will do is encourage more illegal behavior."

Parting ways with President Bush, Allen voted this session against a failed Senate bill that would have given some illegal immigrants a path to citizenship. The senator leans toward House Republicans on immigration, favoring enforcement-only approaches that aim to close the borders.

"First and foremost, Virginians want our borders secured," said Dick Wadhams, Allen's campaign manager. He said Allen considered Congress's final border fence bill a "good start."

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