Both Parties See Upside to Immigration Issue

Candidates are talking almost as much about immigration this election season as they are about Iraq and the economy. Both the Republicans and Democrats think it's a winning issue for them.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Another big issue on the campaign trail is illegal immigration, which has so divided Congress that the House and Senate stopped trying to compromise on changing the immigration system this year. They did approve 700 miles of new border fencing, though it is not clear that all of it will get built.

But as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the lack of action has not kept candidates from talking about immigration.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The message Congress' Republican leadership has honed for months is this: Democrats, they say, want to legalize millions of foreign workers, while Republicans want to send the illegal workers home, and keep others from coming. So, it's surprising to hear:

Mr. ED GOEAS (Republican Pollster, Tarrance Group): Interestingly enough, Republicans are actually more pro-immigration than the Democrats are.

LUDDEN: Ed Goeas, is a Republican pollster with the Tarrance Group. He says, throughout this year's heated debate, polls showed three-quarters of Republicans consistently supported Senate legislation for a mass legalization and guest worker program. Goeas said these majorities supported the plan, even though most considered it amnesty.

Countering this, Goeas says, a core 18 percent of Republicans actually considered the House immigration bill amnesty, even though it would have criminalized illegal foreign workers.

Mr. GOEAS: And I have kind of joked around, but that - I'm somewhat serious. Anything short of stripping them naked and marching them back across the desert is amnesty to a group of people.

LUDDEN: But, Goeas says, that same group of people can be key to Republican fortunes in tight races. And immigration is an emotional issue that may rally them to the polls. That explains the slew of Republican ads like this one by Max Burns. A former Georgia congressman who's trying to get elected again.

(Soundbite of Republican ad)

Unidentified Woman: Georgia's illegal immigration problem is the fastest in growing in America. But John Barrow is for assimilating illegal immigrants. He voted to help illegal immigrants get health benefits.

LUDDEN: Actually, Democrat John Barrow bucked his own party leadership to vote for the hard line House bill as he proudly tells in his own ads.

(Soundbite of John Barrow political ad)

Senator JOHN BARROW (Democrat, Georgia): John Barrow voted to make it a crime to be in the United States illegally. And he voted to crackdown on employers who hire illegal aliens.

LUDDEN: In a number of races when it comes to immigration, it's hard to tell Democratic ad from Republican ones. This may reflect some polls that do show voter unease, even among Democrats.

Kelly Anne Conway of the Polling Company says concerns have expanded beyond national security and dissimilation.

Ms. KELLY ANNE CONWAY (President, The Polling Company): People are starting to look at immigration through green eyeshades. And they're saying, look, it's a burden to me because I pay for the schools, and I pay for the hospitals, and I pay for the roads and everything. And this isn't, quote, "fair."

LUDDEN: Conway says her polling suggests an advantage for Republicans on immigration. But Simon Rosenberg, of the progressive public policy group NDN, strongly disagrees.

Mr. SIMON ROSENBERG (President, New Democrat Network): I think that this issue has been a total loser for the Republicans.

LUDDEN: Rosenberg says not only has a Republican-controlled Congress failed to solve the problem of illegal immigration, it's also alienated Hispanic voters, the fastest growing part of the electorate. Rosenberg says President Bush helped double Hispanic support for the GOP in the past decade, but adds that his latest polling shows all that gain is gone.

Mr. ROSENBERG: What is known by Latinos across this country is that it's the Republicans who are going after them. And the consequences of this for their party, for being able to build a 21st century majority, are very significant.

LUDDEN: Those consequences may help Democrats capture at least one chamber of Congress next month. But with so many of their own members talking tough and rejecting amnesty, Democrats may find it no easier to tackle the immigration issue than Republicans have.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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