Pres­i­den­tial con­tenders eye im­mi­gra­tion leg­is­la­tion war­ily

McCain is the only top can­di­date to praise the bill. Oth­ers are cau­tious or out­right crit­i­cal.

Los Angeles Times - - T H E Nation - By Mark Z. Barabak

The Se­nate’s com­pro­mise im­mi­gra­tion bill is forc­ing the pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates to con­front a di­vi­sive is­sue that is of­fer­ing some­thing for ev­ery­one to hate.

Un­like the war in Iraq, which sep­a­rates law­mak­ers mainly along party lines, the im­mi­gra­tion is­sue frac­tures Repub­li­can and Demo­cratic ranks from within — split­ting busi­ness in­ter­ests from so­cial con­ser­va­tives, di­vid­ing la­bor ad­vo­cates from Latino groups.

“The is­sue is fraught with dan­ger,” said John An­za­lone, a Demo­cratic poll­ster. “It’s one where it’s tough to please ev­ery­body within your base or coali­tion.”

For that rea­son, per­haps, the only ma­jor can­di­date who whole­heart­edly em­braced the bi­par­ti­san pro­posal an­nounced Thurs­day was Repub­li­can Sen. John McCain of Ari­zona — which was not sur­pris­ing, given his role in help­ing ne­go­ti­ate the agree­ment. How­ever, McCain’s de­ci­sion to step off the cam­paign trail and ap­pear at a Capi­tol Hill news con­fer­ence with Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), the Democrats’ lead ne­go­tia­tor and a pariah to con­ser­va­tives, raised more than a few GOP eye­brows.

“The Amer­i­can peo­ple want so­lu­tions to ma­jor prob­lems,” said John Weaver, a McCain strate­gist. “He’s run­ning for pres­i­dent to do the tough things, and he’s do­ing them now.”

New Mex­ico Gov. Bill Richard­son also praised the bill. “This leg­is­la­tion makes a good start to­ward re-se­cur­ing our South­ern border,” Richard­son said Fri­day. But, like other Demo­cratic can­di­dates, he ex­pressed con­cern about a tem­po­rary-worker pro­gram and rules gov­ern­ing fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion.

Sen. Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton (D-N.Y.) gave a cau­tious, wai­t­and-see re­sponse. “I will scru­ti­nize care­fully the pro­posed com­pro­mise to see if it hon­ors our na­tion’s prin­ci­ples and proud im­mi­grant her­itage while also re­spect­ing the rule of law,” Clin­ton said.

For­mer New York City Mayor Ru­dolph W. Gi­u­liani of­fered no di­rect com­ment. Rather, the GOP pres­i­den­tial hope­ful re­it­er­ated his sup­port for tough border en­force­ment and es­tab­lish­ment of tam­per-proof ID cards and a na­tion­wide im­mi­grant data­base “so that we can make the de­ter­mi­na­tion of who’s good, who’s av­er­age and who’s bad.”

Then, Gi­u­liani said, “I can see a lot of flex­i­bil­ity” for bi­par­ti­san ne­go­ti­a­tions on broader leg­is­la­tion.

Most other Repub­li­can hope­fuls con­demned the com­pro­mise.

For­mer Mas­sachusetts Gov. Mitt Rom­ney said the Se­nate agree­ment “falls short of the ac­tions needed to both solve our coun­try’s il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion prob­lem and also strengthen our le­gal im­mi­gra­tion sys­tem.”

For­mer Arkansas Gov. Mike Huck­abee said the bill of­fered “amnesty” to il­le­gal im­mi­grants and un­der­cut “those who are pa­tiently fol­low­ing the rules to be­come cit­i­zens.”

For­mer Sen. Fred Thompson (R-Tenn.), who is weigh­ing a run for pres­i­dent, said law­mak­ers “should scrap this bill and the whole de­bate un­til we can con­vince the Amer­i­can peo­ple that we have se­cured the borders, or at least have made great head­way.”

On the Demo­cratic side, for­mer Sen. John Ed­wards of North Carolina joined crit­i­cism of the leg­is­la­tion’s guest worker pro­vi­sion. “We’re not there yet,” he said of the Se­nate com­pro­mise. “We need to get this done right.”

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) ex­pressed con­cern that the bill would “de­value the im­por­tance of fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion, re­place the cur­rent group of un­doc­u­mented im­mi­gra­tions with a new un­doc­u­mented pop­u­la­tion ... and po­ten­tially drive down wages of Amer­i­can work­ers.”

Sen. Christo­pher J. Dodd (DConn.) also voiced con­cern about the tem­po­rary worker pro­vi­sion and “the aban­don­ment of fam­ily re­uni­fi­ca­tion,” re­fer­ring to a pro­posed change to the prac­tice of giv­ing visa pri­or­ity to mem­bers of ex­tended fam­i­lies.

For all the Democrats’ dis­tanc­ing, An­za­lone sug­gested that the im­mi­gra­tion de­bate was likely to prove more mean­ing­ful on the GOP side. “I don’t think any­one lives or dies in the Demo­cratic Party on this is­sue,” An­za­lone said. “Is­sues like the Iraq war, ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy, health­care pol­icy are still go­ing to be the bread and but­ter — and the con­trast — with Repub­li­cans.”

Q. Whit­field Ayres, a GOP poll­ster, agreed. “Il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion is way up at the top of do- mes­tic is­sues that Repub­li­can pri­mary vot­ers would like to see ad­dressed,” Ayres said. “So it’s not go­ing to fade.”

In­deed, in the GOP pres­i­den­tial de­bate this week, Rom­ney and McCain tan­gled over im­mi­gra­tion while other can­di­dates crit­i­cized the com­pro­mise that was tak­ing shape on Capi­tol Hill.

And Fri­day, the con­ser­va­tive bl­o­go­sphere and talk ra­dio were full of crit­i­cism and in­dig­na­tion.

Rush Lim­baugh, the avatar of con­ser­va­tive talk ra­dio, said the pro­posal was “worse than do­ing noth­ing.”

On the con­ser­va­tive web­site GOPUSA, vis­i­tors were urged to “tell your sen­a­tors to vote against the amnesty bill!”

The re­sponse, Ayres said, pointed up the dif­fer­ence be­tween cam­paign­ing and gov­ern­ing, and the ten­sions fac­ing those — like McCain — try­ing to do both.

“What’s pop­u­lar among vo­cal el­e­ments of the Repub­li­can base is very, very dif­fer­ent from what could pass a bi­par­ti­san Se­nate,” Ayres said.

mark.barabak@la­times.com

Chip So­mod­ev­illa Getty Images

NE­GO­TIA­TORS: A bi­par­ti­san group of sen­a­tors and Cabi­net of­fi­cials an­nounces the im­mi­gra­tion com­pro­mise bill Thurs­day.

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