Different perspectives on immigration

Carol Platt Liebau
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Posted: May 29, 2007 12:00 AM
Different perspectives on immigration

Over the past week or so, the American public has repeatedly been told that a “bipartisan” group of senators favors a very sweeping immigration bill – one with serious critics on both the left and the right.

No doubt there are some Republicans and some Democrats who are wholeheartedly supporting the bill essentially in its original form – Jon Kyl of Arizona and Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts spring to mind. But in general, both sides have come to the Senate floor with significant amendments. And what’s been most interesting about watching that process go forward is what it tells us about the two parties’ principles when it comes to immigration. While much of the "xenonophobic" label that's been applied to Republicans is unfair, the process has raised some troubling questions about Democrat priorities.

Take the Dorgan amendment, the Bingaman amendment and the Vitter amendment. The first, proposed by Democrat Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, would have scrapped the temporary worker program. The measure failed, 64-31 – but notably, every vote in favor of scrapping the program (which would, in turn, have scuttled the entire bill) came from a Democrat.

Then there’s the Bingaman amendment, brainchild of Democrat Jeff Bingaman of New Hampshire. It proposed slashing the number of annual visas for temporary workers to 200,000. The amendment passed, 74-24. Interestingly, every senator who opposed reducing the number of visas for the temporary workers program was a Republican, except for Democrats Teddy Kennedy of Massachusetts, Ken Salazar of Colorado and Independent Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.

Finally, Republican David Vitter of Louisiana offered an amendment that would effectively have eliminated the much-vaunted “path to citizenship” for immigrants who entered this country illegally. The proposal failed 66-29, with 38 (of 49) Democrats voting to maintain the “path to citizenship” for illegals, while only 25 of 49 of Republicans voted in accord with them.

Certainly, there is partisan crossover with most of these votes – on some more than others. But even so, there are trends and outlines that reveal partisan priorities. Democrats are obviously more willing to eliminate or limit the guest worker program than Republicans are – and are much more eager to ensure that the illegal immigrants in this country are granted citizenship. Republicans are less open-handed with offers of citizenship, but more willing to provide a way for hard-working, economically distressed immigrants to work in America.

Clearly, the traditional Republican concern for business – and the longstanding Democrat alliance with organized labor – plays an important part in these voting patterns. But it’s also fair to point out that, while Democrats and even some in the mainstream media are all too willing to insinuate that Republicans opposing the immigration bill in its original form are anti-Latino bigots, Republicans seem open to the concept of instituting an orderly program that will benefit those who want to enter the United States legally.

On the whole, Republicans seem ready to offer a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay – at least to those who have been willing to play by the rules. In contrast, by their voting patterns, it seems that Democrats are substantially less receptive to measures that would find a way for the desperately poor to receive the jobs and protections for which so many of them seem willing to risk so much – but they’re quite willing to reward with citizenship the immigrants who have broken the law.

Given all the attention that’s been paid to the fringe of angry, “closed-border” conservatives on the right, perhaps it’s fair to ask: Are Democrats pro-immigration, or just pro-illegal immigration? Would they be supporting an immigration bill that didn’t hold the promise of adding millions of potential new voters to their rolls? And why do so many of their presidential candidates –Bill Richardson, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama among them – believe it’s more important to emphasize the benefits of family reunification for immigrants over meeting our nation’s needs for newcomers with specialized or highly sought after job skills? Finally, what, exactly, does it say about Democrat priorities that under their congressional leadership, less than 2 of the 700 miles of border security fence authorized by the Republican Congress last year has been built?

It would be ruinous to the Democrats’ hopes of a larger governing majority in 2008 for voters to conclude that securing long-term political advantage from the scourge of illegal immigration was, ultimately, more important to them than enforcing American law and securing America’s borders during an age of international terrorism. But, on the whole, would such a conclusion be unfair?