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Calculating Immigration Politics

By George Will

WASHINGTON -- Geographically, Pennsylvania is a long way from Laredo. But politically, every state may be a border state this year. As evidence, consider a radio ad being run by Rick Santorum, a Republican seeking a third U.S. Senate term in a state that has voted Democratic in the last four presidential elections. Titled "He Needs Glasses,'' the target is Santorum's opponent, Bob Casey:

"Bobby Casey announced his support of a Senate bill that grants amnesty to illegal immigrants, shocking hardworking taxpayers all across Pennsylvania. Now Casey's trying to wiggle out of it by saying the bill doesn't offer amnesty and requires illegal immigrants to pay their back taxes. Either Casey didn't read the bill, or he's trying to deceive you. The Washington Times reports the legislation gives amnesty to 11 million who are here illegally, and paves the way for 66 million more immigrants to enter the country. The bill also forgives two of the last five years of back taxes for illegals, something the IRS would never do for you. This Casey-supported bill even gives illegal aliens Social Security benefits for the time they were here illegally. Fortunately, Rick Santorum voted against the bill and Rick's leading the fight to make sure it never becomes law. Now you know the advantage of having in our corner a fighter like Rick Santorum.''

Whether or not the word "amnesty'' is apposite concerning what the Senate bill does is a matter of opinion. And you can judge for yourself the plausibility of 66 million new immigrants by reading the report, by Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), that helped strengthen the House's insistence on an "enforcement first" policy. The claims about taxes and Social Security are true enough.

Leaving aside the merits of the Senate bill, and considering the ad simply as political ammunition, it packs more punch than what one hears from Democrats this year. (House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi: "We have two oilmen in the White House. The logical follow-up from that is $3-a-gallon gasoline. There is no accident. It is a cause and effect.'') The "He Needs Glasses'' ad features the third-ranking member of the Republicans' Senate leadership attacking legislation that passed the Senate even though a majority of Republican senators -- 32 of 55 -- voted against it. Supported by 39 of 44 Democratic senators, this "Casey-supported'' legislation has two key features -- a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for most of the 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants -- that are supported by George W. Bush and that are the two main reasons why Republicans oppose the bill.

Many Republicans, looking for any silver lining on an abundance of dark clouds, think the immigration issue might be a silver bullet that will slay their current vulnerability. The issue is, as political people say, a "two-fer.'' Opposition to the Senate bill, and support for the House bill, puts Republican candidates where much of the country and most of their party's base currently is -- approximately, "fix the border, then maybe we can talk about other things.'' And opposition to the Senate bill distances them from a president who, although rebounding recently, has approval ratings below 40 percent in 29 states.

Republicans very much want to pass an immigration bill as proof their party can govern. For that reason, there is no reason to expect Senate Democrats to compromise by passing something like the House bill. Nothing very different from it has any chance of being accepted by the House. So, assuming, as it seems safe to do, that the House-Senate conference fails to produce a compromise acceptable to both houses, when Congress returns to Washington after the Labor Day recess the House may again pass essentially what it passed in December, just to enable Republicans to campaign on the basis of a clear and recent stance against exactly what Santorum's ad stands against.

The cost of this, paid in the coin of lost support among Latinos, the nation's largest and fastest growing minority, may be reckoned later, for years. Remember this: Out West, feelings of all sorts about immigration policy are particularly intense, and if John Kerry had won a total of 127,014 more votes in New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado, states with burgeoning Latino populations, he would have carried those states and won the election. But for now, the minds of Republican candidates are concentrated on a shorter time horizon -- the next four and a half months.


(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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