Immigration Debate Divides Republican Congress

The immigration debate has divided the Republican Party. Those divisions were on display this week when the Republicans, who control the House, decided to hold off on negotiating a compromise with the Republican-led Senate. Some Republicans want to create a path to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants, while many others oppose what they call "amnesty."

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If Democrats are divided on Iraq, Republicans are torn on immigration. Those divisions were on display this week when the Republicans, who control the House, decided to hold off negotiating a compromise with the Republican-led Senate. Senate Republican leaders and President Bush want more border security and also a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Most Republican lawmakers see any sort of legalization as amnesty, and the division affects politics as well as policy.

Here's NPR's Mara Liasson.

MARA LIASSON reporting:

For the Republican Party, immigration reform is a Rorschach test: either an issue that will help the GOP retain its majority or one that will hurt the party with Hispanics.

Here's New York Republican Congressman Peter King who's very clear about what he will say to his voters this fall.

Representative PETER KING (Republican, New York): My message will be, in my election, is I am doing all I can to stop amnesty, to stop legalization, and to secure the borders. That's what we have to do.

LIASSON: King's Long Island district is far from the border with Mexico, and although President Bush carried it in 2004, King has no compunctions about breaking with Mr. Bush on this issue.

Rep. KING: The average House member is going to be elected or re-elected based on what he's doing, not whether people perceive that President Bush is able to get an immigration bill through. If President Bush is able to get an immigration bill through, which they think is a bad bill, that's not going to help me if I vote for the bill.

LIASSON: But pollster Matthew Dowd, who was the President's chief strategist in the 2004 elections, thinks House Republicans, like King, have it all wrong. Dowd points to polls, including the latest Wall Street Journal survey, that show a majority of Americans favoring an approach that combines border security with a path to citizenship.

Mr. MATTHEW DOWD (Republican Pollster): I think it's always a price to be paid where you're out of step with the majority of where the country is. House Republicans that only emphasize border security and don't have the other side of the equation risk some political fallout - not only in the short-term, but in the long-term, from moderates and from Latinos, who will see them as intolerant.

LIASSON: And other Republicans worry that the party's election-year rhetoric is beginning to take on an anti-Hispanic cast. Republican Brian Bilbray, recently won a special election in California, by using the immigration issue against his Democratic opponent. Here he is on talk radio host Hugh Hewitt's program.

Representative BRIAN BILBRAY (Republican, California): This is going to be the election that will decide if our grandchildren, in the future, learn Spanish because they want to, or because they have to.

LIASSON: The immigration issue isn't just being used by Republicans against Democrats; it's being used by Republicans against Republicans. In Utah's Third Congressional District, challenger John Jacob, has turned the Republican primary into a fratricidal battle about one issue.

Mr. JOHN JACOB (Republican House Candidate, Utah): These people have come into America without permission. And they've brought diseases, they've brought drugs - all kinds of things...

LIASSON: In a recent debate on Public Radio Station KCPW, Jacob attacked incumbent Congressman Chris Cannon for being on the same side of the issue as President Bush.

Mr. JACOB: ...and you rubberstamp what he's doing, and he's now coming out to support you. And that means you'll still be on that side, no matter how much you want to look like you're saying that you're tough on illegal immigration.

LIASSON: Those attacks put Cannon on the defensive.

Representative CHRISTOPHER CANNON (Republican, Utah): That's because despite the fact that you keep saying that I am for illegal immigration, I've been tough on the issue...

LIASSON: It's possible immigration will help some Republicans hang on to their seats in November. It's an issue that energizes conservatives, who Republicans desperately need this fall. But what helps some Republicans in the short term could hurt the party in the long-term. Back in 1994, then California Governor Pete Wilson ran for re-election with the plan to crackdown on illegal immigrants.

(Soundbite of political advertising)

Unidentified Man: They keep coming: two million illegals in California. The federal government won't stop them at the border, yet require...

LIASSON: That plan helped Wilson get re-elected. But over time, it diminished Hispanic support for Republicans. And as the Hispanic vote in California doubled, it helped push the state into the Democratic column. And that's just what Matthew Dowd worries could happen to Republicans again, as the Hispanic vote grows nationally.

Mr. DOWD: You have a series of states that has become a reason why they've gone from reliably Republican to more swing, or more Democratic. States like Florida, states like Nevada, states like Colorado. Look at some of the states that are going to be key, not only in midterm elections, but presidential elections, it's a huge population center.

LIASSON: Despite repeated entreaties by President Bush, Karl Rove, and other GOP strategists, House Republicans like Peter King are not budging.

Rep. KING: I still think in the long run, it's going to be better for the Republican Party because the rule of law, I think, predominates among all people. And rather than pander for hoping that we can appeal to one group by giving amnesty, I think we end up offending everybody.

LIASSON: A comprehensive approach to immigration was President Bush's number one domestic priority this term. But the White House analysis of both the policy and the politics of this issue has utterly failed to unite his party.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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