Democrats are flocking to McCain's immigration bill

A handful of Democratic House candidates in tight races near the Mexican border are aligning themselves with Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican known for his straight-talking, tough-guy persona.

Fearful of looking soft on illegal aliens — or simply eager to tap into McCain’s star power, or both — Democrats in California and Arizona are endorsing the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, introduced last spring by McCain and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

A handful of Democratic House candidates in tight races near the Mexican border are aligning themselves with Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican known for his straight-talking, tough-guy persona.

Fearful of looking soft on illegal aliens — or simply eager to tap into McCain’s star power, or both — Democrats in California and Arizona are endorsing the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act, introduced last spring by McCain and Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

The growing support on the campaign trail for the McCain-Kennedy bill comes as Congress prepares to plunge into a debate about border security, terrorism and an array of political, economic and defense-related interests.

It also could preview a major issue in the 2008 presidential race. One of the five co-sponsors of the bill is Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), one of several Senate GOP White House hopefuls. The immigration issue also has played a prominent role in the gubernatorial contest in Virginia, home to Sen. George Allen, another Republican presidential contender. And recently, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D), who also may decide to make a presidential bid, last week declared a state of emergency along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Jumping onto McCain’s immigration bandwagon makes political sense for Democrats running in competitive races in the West, where McCain is particularly popular, Republicans said.

Francine Busby, a school official running in California’s GOP-leaning 50th District, recently released a position paper hailing McCain’s “bipartisan legislation.” Busby said it would bolster border security, the nation’s healthcare system and the economy.

In Arizona’s 1st District, Democrat Jack Jackson, hoping to beat Rep. Rick Renzi (R) next year, called the McCain-Kennedy bill a common-sense approach to combating illegal immigration and dealing with the 11 million undocumented immigrants who are currently in the country.

The McCain bill could cause problems for some Republicans in tough reelection matches where conservative interest groups are deeply divided in their approach to curbing the huge influx of Mexicans to the state. Such is the case in New Mexico’s 1st District, home to Rep. Heather Wilson.

While businesses across the country benefit from the cheap labor immigrants provide, angry voters such as the Minutemen, a band of vigilante border guards, are fed up with cross-border violence and smuggling.

Democrats have yet to find a candidate to run against Wilson. But the Republican congresswoman, who won her fifth term last year with 55 percent of the vote, must walk a fine line on the issue, a senior aide to Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) said.
While David Waid, the executive director of the Arizona Democratic Party, did not explicitly throw his support behind the McCain-Kennedy bill, he praised McCain for weighing in on the issue.

“Senator McCain is somebody who is widely, widely respected in Arizona, and everybody knows this is a guy who gets things done,” he said.

Waid also took aim at another Senate measure, which would overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. Arizona’s junior senator, Jon Kyl (R), and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) are sponsoring the bill, but Waid said it has little chance of passing.

Waid predicted immigration issues would figure prominently in every race in Arizona next year, considering the growing immigration-related fear and anger directed toward illegal aliens and, increasingly, toward a federal government that seems impotent when it comes to patrolling its own borders.

Cornyn, in an interview, called his bill a comprehensive response to illegal immigration. The senator said the bill addresses four broad areas: border security, interior enforcement, employer accountability and the status of temporary, or guest, workers.

Like many Republicans, Cornyn said, he believes the homeland-security issue has brought a sense of urgency to the illegal-immigration debate. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, he said, the immigration debate was viewed as an employment and resources issue, as Hispanics snatched up low-paying jobs and overburdened schools and hospitals.

“There is a growing sense that immigration reform is the No. 1 homeland-security issue out there because our inability or unwillingness to control our borders obviously makes us vulnerable to people who want to come here to do us harm,” Cornyn said.

A delegation of members of the House Homeland Security Committee was planning to visit the U.S.-Mexico border this week.

Next month the House and Senate are expected to begin debate on Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff’s second-stage review of his department.

Congressional sources said the Chertoff would like to eliminate an undersecretary position so that more officials report directly to him. While members of the House and Senate Homeland Security committees do not necessarily oppose this move, these sources said they would like to see a more fundamental, bureaucratic restructuring of the sprawling, 186,000-person department.

The fact that the House Homeland Security Committee chairmanship is currently vacant is another complication in the debate over the future of the department and its approach to patrolling the nation’s borders. The House GOP Steering will choose the next chairman when it meets in September.

But the 2008 presidential race will likely provide the best opportunity for a national immigration debate.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who is known for taking a hard-line stance on immigration, has said he may run for president as a way to inject the issue into the race.

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