Presidential contenders eye immigration legislation warily
McCain is the only top candidate to praise the bill. Others are cautious or outright critical.
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.
NEGOTIATORS: A bipartisan group of senators and Cabinet officials announces the immigration compromise bill Thursday.