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Immigration debated with eye on the election
Media General News Service


April 17, 2006

WASHINGTON - Monday a week ago, immigrants demonstrated massively and peacefully across the country against a bill in Congress that would make anyone in the country illegally a felon.

On Tuesday, Republican congressional leaders said the felony provision wouldn't be in the final bill.

So, the protesters won, right?

Not exactly. The immigration issue has more twists and turns than a maze.

While House Speaker Dennis Hastert of Illinois and Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee agreed in principle to drop the felony penalty, it likely was already out.

Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., sponsor of the House bill with the felony penalty, had conceded in a letter to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops April 5: "A felony penalty is neither appropriate nor workable." And he said he wanted to work with the bishops on reducing the penalty.

It's not at all clear that Congress will pass any immigration bill this election year.

What is certain is that both parties are looking toward the next presidential election.

Here's the trend: In 2004, President Bush won 44 percent of the Hispanic vote, up from 35 percent four years earlier.

Those numbers, from the same TV network-Associated Press national exit poll that gave us President Kerry, were disputed. Some analysts say Bush actually got more like 40 percent, but let's not quibble. The Hispanic trend toward the GOP is significant as we approach mid-term elections and then the 2008 presidential race.

Approximately 9 million Latinos voted in the last presidential election, compared with 6 million in 2000, and those numbers are only going up as Hispanics flex their political muscle.

As they court Hispanic voters, though, politicians have only to read their mail to know the country is fractured over immigration. People are perplexed and uncertain about a solution. That helps explain the weird lurching into brick walls in Congress.

In their joint statement, Hastert and Frist said, "It remains our intent to produce a strong border security bill that will not make unlawful presence in the United States a felony."

They were silent on which lesser penalties and what other provisions might be in a bill. No word on the 700-mile wall along the southern border the Sensenbrenner bill included, nor on the temporary-worker measure that Bush wants but the Senate failed to pass.

In a bit of fancy partisan footwork, Frist and Hastert castigated House Democrats for a "lack of compassion" when they voted against an amendment to the House bill that would have made being in the country illegally a misdemeanor, instead of a felony.

In a little-noticed - until now - Dec. 16 vote, 191 Democrats stuck with the felony provision. They were voting strategically to keep the felony issue alive. This is politics.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said, "Actions speak louder than words, and there's no running away from the fact the Republican House passed a bill and Senator Frist offered one that criminalizes immigrants."

The idea of criminalizing between 11 million and 12 million men, women and children - and those who offer them humanitarian help - was the spark that ignited the rallies over the last few weeks.

In the wake of the Senate's failure to pass a bill, Bush and congressional leaders are blaming Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada for delaying the legislation. Last week, Reid asked Frist to bring up the immigration bill when Congress returns from its spring recess. Frist has not said if he will.

In his radio address last week, Bush said, "At its core, immigration is the sign of a confident and successful nation."

And that's the crux of the problem. When the Pew Research Center and Pew Hispanic Center compared opinion polls over the last few years, they found people increasingly critical of immigrants.

More than half - 52 percent - of those surveyed nationally last month said immigrants are a burden because they take jobs and housing. Only 38 percent thought so in September 2000.

And, asked if the growing number of newcomers from other countries strengthens American society, fewer than half - 45 percent - said yes.


Marsha Mercer is Washington bureau chief for Media General News Service.
E-mail mmercer(at)
Distributed to subscribers for publication by Scripps Howard News Service.

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