Immigration Roils Republicans in Washington

Majority Leader Bill Frist says he wants the Senate to vote on an immigration bill this week. Debate over the issue has exposed rifts within the Republican Party. Renee Montagne talks with Cokie Roberts.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Politics in the U.S. are still focused on immigration. This week the Senate bill on immigration comes up for a vote, if majority leader Bill Frist has his way. Bill Frist said yesterday that he wants to bring the issue to the Senate floor. What happens once it gets there is anyone's guess. Joining us now is NPR News Analyst Cokie Roberts. Good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS, reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: President Bush made his position on immigration quite clear last week, as he met with the president of Mexico and called for a guest worker program, but President Bush's party is not exactly falling into line, is it?

ROBERTS: No, and part of what we're dealing with here, as we seem to be on so many issues this year, is presidential politics 2008, where you have members of the Senate positioning themselves for a run in the Republican primaries. And that's certainly the case with Bill Frist, the majority leader from Tennessee who's very much against this guest worker program, as is another presidential maybe hopeful, Virginia Senator George Allen, both saying that there should not be any sense of legalizing people who have been here illegally, but other Republicans think that that is crazy both in terms of policy and politics. Listen to South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): If our answer to, to the fastest growing demographic in this country is that we want to make felons of your grandparents and we want to put people in jail for helping your neighbors and people related to you then we're going to suffer mightily.

ROBERTS: Senator Graham said that on Fox News Sunday. Now we've talked about this before, Renee, the political impact of President Bush reaching out to Hispanics and trying to get that fast-growing demographic into the Republican Party, but in the last week it has gotten very clear the demonstrations that have taken place all over the country, that this is something that, this immigration bill is something that Hispanics really do object to.

In San Diego last week there were kids in schools demonstrating about their parents being deported according to the House bill passed in the House and the one supported by some Republicans. School had to be cancelled because so many kids were demonstrating.

MONTAGNE: Well, those demonstrations have been quite dramatic actually, but there are some polls, are there not, suggesting that voters are ready to crack down on immigration?

ROBERTS: Indeed. Time magazine has a poll out this weekend says 82% say they believe the government's not doing enough to keep illegal immigrants out of the country. Seventy-five percent would deny them government services like healthcare, food stamps. Half said children who are here illegally shouldn't be allowed to attend public schools.

But then you get more somewhat ambivalent answers when you ask about things like should there be a temporary jobs program. More than half favor that in an AP Ipsos poll. More than half think that illegal immigrants make a contribution to this society rather than cause a drain and more than half say that they don't think that being here without proper documentation should be a minor offense, not a felony as the House bill calls for.

But even so, there is a lot of objection to illegal immigration. You know, it is one of those things, though, that there are a lot of intangibles. It's not just Hispanics that are concerned about this. The harshness of the rhetoric around this debate tends to alienate women and that's something that the Republican Party has also been very concerned about.

And you have people like Catholic Cardinal Mahoney in Los Angeles leading the charge against this harsh immigration bill, and the Republicans have also been very concerned about the Catholic vote, so there are a lot of different elements going on here.

MONTAGE: Well, Cokie, it seems that the nation tackles immigration just about every generation. In California the same battle was played out just 10 years ago. Why does Congress have to grapple with this issue over and over again?

ROBERTS: Because it's really hard. I covered it 20 years ago when it was the Simpson-Mazzoli bill which gave amnesty in exchange for trying to impose sanctions on employers who hired illegals. Nobody really has enforced those sanctions, so here you are again.

The truth is it's just a very hard thing to do. Congressman Sensenbrenner, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, says it's the toughest thing he's done in 37 years in public office, so it could easily not happen. We could easily not have an immigration bill this year.

MONTAGNE: Cokie, thanks very much. That's NPR News analyst Cokie Roberts.

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