Presidential Candidates Weigh Immigration Issue

Those running for president are paying close attention to a Senate bill that would overhaul immigration policy. Party politics shape their opinions. All of them acknowledge the benefit of a guest worker program as well as the importance of family unification.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

The immigration bill announced to much fanfare last week is beginning to change. The White House and congressional leaders agreed on a plan that would affect millions of immigrants. Now they just face the problem of getting it passed to skeptical lawmakers and lobbying groups.

One big change came yesterday in the U.S. Senate. Senators voted to reduce the size of a guest worker program by more than half. In a few minutes, we'll have a report from California, where farmers and farm workers are strongly backing this bill.

First, we're going to check in with NPR's Juan Williams, who's been looking at where the presidential candidates stand. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Any of the candidates liked this bill?

WILLIAMS: Well, John McCain, the Arizona senator, he's a cosponsor of the bill and he's been willing to defend it. He got into a profanity-laced row with Texas Senator John Cornyn after Cornyn suggested the bill amounted to amnesty for legal immigrants. And when Mitt Romney, McCain's rival for the GOP nomination, similarly attacked the bill for creating special visas for people here illegally, McCain offered a very barbed reply.

He said, Romney, who earlier in the race had claimed to have been a rabbit hunter, should, quote, "get his small varmint gun out and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn." You know, over several years, Romney reportedly hired a lawn care company in Boston that employed illegal immigrants. But other than McCain, there's no real Republican champion of the bill, which separates the party's social conservatives, loud opponents, from President Bush and the chamber of commerce Republicans, who are among it's leading supporters.

INSKEEP: You got a lot of Republican candidates, so what are some of the others saying here?

WILLIAMS: Well, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani of New York said the legislation is a, quote, "hodgepodge." It fails to meet a key goal in fighting terrorism. Specifically, in his opinion, it doesn't keep track of people who cross the border into the U.S. He said he wants to be sure there are tamper-proof identification cards, real databases of immigrants. And Giuliani also says, though, that he's open to negotiations on the bill.

One other point, Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, as you know, has made this a singular issue for his campaign, and so he's out there on it. And so is Congressman Duncan Hunter, who's been strongly critical of the bill. Neither has changed their tune as a result of what's going on in Congress.

INSKEEP: What about the Democrats?

WILLIAMS: Well, this is really interesting, because it's much more of a wait-and-see game with no one candidate really being passionate. You know, unlike the Republicans where immigration appears to be a litmus-test domestic issue, the base of the Democratic Party has an array of issues that are arguably more important to them, such as providing health care coverage to people who don't have insurance and improving public schools.

I'd say individually, Bill Richardson, governor of New Mexico, the lone Hispanic in the race, is probably the most outspoken supporter. And John Edwards, the former senator, is maybe the biggest opponent. He's got a lot of support coming from unions that are strongly opposed to that guest worker plan you were talking about.

INSKEEP: Hillary Clinton? Barack Obama?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, when you think about Obama, his criticism of it has been to say that the bill should place less emphasis on education and skills for people who are trying to get in to the U.S. than on what historically has been the case, which is family unification. And Senator Clinton says she has concerns about both the guest worker program and family unification.

INSKEEP: There must be candidates who benefit if this bill passes, and there must be candidates who benefit if this bill fails.

WILLIAMS: How true. Well, John McCain, obviously, win or lose, can argue that he has shown leadership on the issue, but he may suffer a backlash, Steve. Former Governor Romney is open to charges of flip-flopping on the issue because, earlier in his career, he had said that he was looking - he supported a way to provide a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Democrats, I would say Edwards here, John Edwards is the outsider, especially if the bill succeeds. And I think if it succeeds, it's likely to get a yes vote both from Senator Obama and Senator Clinton. Finally, I think Bill Richardson, as a governor of a Southwestern state and a Hispanic, is a potential winner if the bill passes.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's a roundup of what many of the presidential candidates are saying about the immigration bill now being debated before the U.S. senate.

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