Republicans Tackle Split Over Immigration

Senate Republicans are dealing with the same division over immigration as the rest of the country. They're debating a controversial bill that would change laws covering illegal immigrants. Some want an easier path to citizenship. Others say that the rule of law must be respected.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This Is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rene Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. A divisive debate on immigration starts a third day today in the U.S. Senate. It's an issue that split Republicans and tested Democratic unity. At stake are the fate of millions of undocumented immigrants, a business backed push to expand guest worker programs, and a border with Mexico, where all parties agree that security has broken.

We have more this morning from NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA reporting:

What began as a border security-only bill, sponsored by Majority Leader Bill Frist, quickly became much more than that yesterday. That's because legislation a divided Judiciary Committee passed earlier this week got added as a substitute to Frists's bill. And while it, too, deals with border security, it also offers a path to citizenship for millions now in the country illegally. That angers conservative Republicans, including Louisiana's David Vitter.

Senator DAVID VITTER (Republican, Louisiana): Any measure that's tantamount to amnesty sends exactly the wrong message, as we try to get our hands around this problem. We are a nation that believes in upholding the rule of law. We must reestablish respect for our laws, including border security and interior security.

WELNA: Amnesty has, in fact, become the A word in the immigration debate. All sides agree the 1986 amnesty Ronald Reagan signed into law led to more undocumented workers. New Hampshire Republican Judd Greg says it's time to get real about them.

Senator JUDD GREGG (Republican, New Hampshire): You know, there's this term, we can't give them amnesty; amnesty's wrong, we can't... Well, as a practical matter, they already have amnesty. Our system is not able to deal with these individuals unless they become criminals.

WELNA: In legislation, the House passed late last year, all those in the country illegally would be considered criminals. Yesterday, a group of House Republicans who strongly back that tougher approach denounced the Senate bill. Here's California House Republican Dana Rohrabacher.

Representative DANA ROHRABACHER (Republican, California): I would hope that the American people are smart enough to smell the foul odor that's coming out of the United States Senate.

WELNA: This is not just House/Senate rivalry, it's also internecine warfare. Rohrabacher's fellow Republican, Arizona's Senator John McCain, is a chief proponent of letting undocumented immigrants earn their citizenship by paying fines and learning English.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): What are our opponents' alternatives? Raid and shutter businesses and every city and state in the country? Clog our courts with millions of immigration cases? Offer illegal immigrants the not-too-appealing opportunity to report to deport?

WELNA: Such arguments have swayed an initial skeptic, California Democrat Dianne Feinstein. She's now pushing to legalize a million and a half undocumented farm workers.

Senator DIANNE FEINSTEIN (Democrat, California): I met with landscape contractors this morning. Eighty-six percent of their business in California, the largest business in the nation, is illegal, and they admit it. And it has all of those difficulties of being illegal: fear, furtiveness, a hidden nature. Bring it out into the open.

WELNA: Democrats generally have united behind the idea of legalizing undocumented workers. Their Senate leader, Harry Reid, says immigrant labor is needed in the U.S. economy.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Half a million people come over our borders every year, the Mexican border. The fact is our economy depends on them. We cannot get the situation under control until we acknowledge the economic reality of this.

WELNA: Another proposal before the Senate doubles the number of green cards that allow permanent residency in the U.S. to 400,000 a year. That's been rejected by the AFL-CIO, a traditional Democratic ally. North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, yesterday, added his voice to that criticism.

Senator BYRON DORGAN (Democrat, North Dakota): And I think to suggest, on top of dealing with the 11-million plus, to suggest a guest worker program to bring 400,000 a year in, with a 20-percent expansion program on top of that, I just think it defies all common sense. This is clearly a corporate strategy to keep wages low. It clearly will replace the jobs of American workers.

WELNA: Still, it's Senate Republicans who remain far more divided over immigration. South Carolina's Lindsey Graham had words of caution for his colleagues yesterday.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): From a Republican point of view, we need to be wise in the way we deal with this, politically. I'll just be that direct about it.

WELNA: Immigration's become such a politically risky matter, in fact, that some GOP lawmakers predict it will be left for Congress to finish only after the November elections.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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