Immigration Significant for White House

President Bush's base is divided on the immigration bill. The White House wants to keep the debate going, and touts efforts on border security as well as the importance of immigration for this generation of Republicans. Immigration is a primary concern for small- to medium-sized businesses.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

President Bush spoke to business leaders about immigration today, and he urged Congress to seize this moment.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I view this as an historic opportunity for Congress to act, for Congress to replace a system that is not working with one that we believe will work a lot better.

INSKEEP: Let's get some analysis now from NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Okay, so they need 60 votes, which means they need Democrats and Republicans to vote for this. President Bush is in favor. What's making it so hard for him to bring some Republicans along with him?

WILLIAMS: Well, the president's base is divided. The business community and the grassroots groups, a lot of the right wing radio talk show hosts are split, totally split. And the party's future, I've got to tell you, Steve, as reflected in its need to bring more Hispanic voters into the fold, is split from the party's past as a white, Southern party.

So normally in this kind of dynamic the business community's voice would be dominant because of its financial power as a political donor, of course, but immigration is a primary concern for small to medium-sized businesses, farmers, McDonald's down at the corner, you know, the landscapers. So it's not a pension reform or an occupational safety reform issue where big companies play hardball with budgets in the tens of millions of dollars for political contributions, and that's resulted in opening the door to greater influence from the talk radio crowd.

You know, last week, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi started a storm when he said conservative talk radio hosts don't know what they're talking about on immigration. They're distorting the issue.

Also, I must tell you, focus groups run by business show that GOP rank-and-file are asking simple questions like, why don't immigrants come in legally? They believe that people are just simply opting to break the law when all they need to do is take the time to come in the country legally.

INSKEEP: Interesting that you mentioned Trent Lott criticizing talk radio for their attacks in the immigration bill, but Lott himself is not sure that he's going to vote for this thing.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's right. But he is going to vote, as I understand it, he - people like Mitch McConnell, a senator from Kentucky, number two ranking man for the Republicans in the Senate, say they want the debate to go forward. So the vote you were talking about earlier on cloture today, it looks like they'll say, okay, let the debate go forward although they're still not sure they'll vote for the bill.

INSKEEP: Well, now what is the White House doing to bring along some Republicans here?

WILLIAMS: Well, the first step for the White House is to keep the debate going and, you know, to say we want these amendments to be discussed. And so you get also administration officials, Homeland Security Secretary Mike Chertoff, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, asking people not to let this effort die. It's an important thing for this generation to address the immigration issue.

Second, the president is throwing the law and order argument back at his opponents. He's already approved $4.4 billion for improved border security. And he and his aids are also arguing that illegal workers are coming into the country because the current visa system is broken. It doesn't meet employer's needs for workers and therefore encourages people to enter the country illegally.

INSKEEP: So both parties need to provide some votes in order for this bill to pass, but Democrats aren't exactly united either.

WILLIAMS: No, they're not. The unions and groups representing the growing Latino population have very divergent views, although they both say they're Democrats. The unions are worried about guest workers depressing wages or creating a subclass of workers that weaken benefit packages as well as pay. And the union succeeded in pressuring the party to support a bill cutting the guest-worker program in half, from 400,000 to 200,000. Latino and big business obviously oppose this. They wanted more guest workers. But since Republicans aren't willing to give the guest worker's permanent visas, they lost the fight.

Meanwhile, Latino groups are strongly concerned about rigid enforcement plans that they say are going to lead federal agents, police to challenge anyone with a brown face, and employers, lead them to discriminate against Latino workers so they don't have to deal with possible penalties for hiring. And they are going to be increasing penalties for hiring illegal workers.

INSKEEP: Juan, I have to ask very briefly, are there lawmakers around Congress, you know, looking at a calendar and noticing that they've been in power for six months now and not a lot of really significant legislation has passed. Are there people saying, boy, we better pass something?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, it's on two levels. One, it's a political argument. The Republicans use it as a cudgel against the Democrat to say - previously, you said the Republicans were a do-nothing Congress. Look at you. What have you done? And Democrats say, well, we're stuck because we don't have enough votes really to get things - they were elected, really, to end the war in Iraq. They say they've done minimum wage. They're looking at some other domestic legislation, but it is a fight, Steve, and it is one of the issues that becomes a point, a critical point of pressure here. Can you get something done on a major issue facing the country, or are we stuck with, you know, the kind of polarization that simply leads to paralysis?

INSKEEP: Juan, good talking with you.

WILLIAMS: Always, Steve.

INSKEEP: Analysis this morning from NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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