March may change politics Migrant issue reaches far beyond Monday protest

Jon Kamman, Billy House and Pat Flannery The Arizona Republic Apr. 9, 2006 12:00 AM

As demonstrators take to the nation's streets on Monday in the most dramatic display of Hispanic power ever seen in this country, their footsteps will reverberate across the U.S. political landscape.

Whether the massive mobilization of the nation's largest minority group helps or hinders efforts to resolve illegal immigration, it could have profound long-term political effects.

"This will change Arizona politics forever," Phoenix pollster Earl de Berge said of the prospect of 100,000 people marching in Phoenix. "This is a tipping point (for) the Latino community and its energies."

At least 120 cities are participating in the National Day of Action, which will include student walkouts, candlelight vigils, rallies and marches, including one on the Capitol Mall in Washington, D.C.

How they play out on the streets and in public perceptions, and whether immigration reform occurs at all, could affect political fortunes widely, but mostly in the Southwest.

Nationally, Arizona Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential aspirations may feel little impact, but Republicans' ability to keep control of Congress in this fall's midterm elections could be in jeopardy.

In Arizona, illegal immigration will be a key issue in the race for an open congressional seat, and it could be one of several pivotal issues in the re-election bids of Sen. Jon Kyl and Rep. J.D. Hayworth, both Republicans.

Whether Hispanic activism will carry forward to the ballot box is a question fraught with variables.

How many of the demonstrators and supporters are non-citizens or too young to vote, and how many of the others will show up at the polls, aren't the only factors.

More than half - 52 percent - of Arizona's voting-age Hispanics live in two congressional districts. Democratic Reps. Ed Pastor and Ral Grijalva, both Hispanics, represent those districts, and conservative Republicans hold sway in the state's six other districts.

No consensus

McCain, Kyl and Hayworth all have national standing in the immigration debate. But they are in little agreement on the issue, and their differences permeate the GOP as a whole.

"Arizonans, frankly, are all over the board" on what should be done about the 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country, Kyl said. Arizona is the most popular gateway for illegal immigration along the Southwest border.

A bill passed by the House in December has been the main target of protests. It would declare illegal immigration a felony, rather than a civil offense, and calls for erecting 700 miles of fence and wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

In contrast, the guest-worker program pushed by McCain and Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., was the mainframe for Senate action over the past two weeks and has the support of many demonstrators. But conservatives attack it as a thinly disguised amnesty because it would allow immigrants now settled in the country to pay fines and pursue permanent citizenship.

Kyl's alternative guest-worker program, rejected by a Senate committee, would require illegal immigrants to return to their native countries and apply for re-entry as guest workers. It would provide no path to citizenship.

The Senate's near agreement to a hybrid of those and other proposals ended in stalemate last week, and the fight will resume when senators return from their two-week Easter recess.

If anything emerges from the Senate, it would have to be meshed with the House bill before a measure could be sent to President Bush to sign into law. As the debate drags on and lawmakers are pressed to finish work on other topics, that could result in paralysis until after the fall elections.

Hayworth, author of a recent book on curbing illegal immigration, voted against the House bill but takes a hard-line, enforcement-first stance.

He advocates temporary deployment of the military to the border and a sweeping crackdown on employers. He dismisses the guest-worker concept and rejects a citizenship path. His stance may be put to a test in November by his Democratic opponent, former state Sen. Harry Mitchell, who supports the McCain-Kennedy view.

GOP at risk

Republicans are at risk nationally if Congress accepts a less-than-stringent measure, Hayworth and others warn, because the party's base simply won't show up at the polls.

Recent protests have had undertones of "intimidation," and a backlash could sink the movement, Hayworth has said.

"The demonstrations certainly did more harm than good for the illegal alien cause here in Congress," Hayworth said in a statement. "The sea of foreign flags puts the lie to the claim by amnesty advocates the illegal aliens want to assimilate or become Americans."

The rallies and intensifying debate could have particular importance in filling the seat of retiring GOP Rep. Jim Kolbe, a principal architect of the guest-worker plan co-sponsored by McCain. Thirteen candidates seeking to replace him hold widely divergent views on immigration re- form.

It is an issue of prime concern in the 8th Congressional District, which runs through much of Tucson and ends at Cochise County's border with Mexico.

One measure of the border region's frustration about illegal immigration is that voter registration in 2004 made Republicans the majority for the first time in Cochise County.

Randy Graf, a Republican who quit his state Senate seat to run against Kolbe in 2004, polled 43 percent of the vote in a campaign focusing almost entirely on immigration.

"I believe it is a much bigger issue than it was two years ago," said Graf, who is running again.

Several of the other contenders argue that voters want a comprehensive and compassionate resolution, not punitive measures.

Meanwhile, the race between Kyl and Democrat Jim Pederson has moved onto the immigration battleground, with Pederson blaming Kyl for the collapse of the Senate compromise.

The twist for Kyl is that he can't attack Pederson's stance on immigration without hitting McCain, who happens to be chairman of Kyl's re-election campaign.

Pederson has endorsed the McCain-Kennedy guest-worker proposal and has watched as McCain discredited Kyl's alternative.

Complicated issue

Kyl cited his own examples of how convoluted the matter has become.

Liberals such as Kennedy have allied with pro-business, chamber-of-commerce Republicans who are trying to ensure the ongoing availability of immigrant workers, Kyl said, while some conservatives of his own stripe find themselves aligned with labor unions arguing to protect U.S. workers' jobs.

The "go home" element of Kyl's proposal, besides inflaming Hispanics who are sympathetic to the plight of the undocumented, is seen by critics, including McCain, as impossible to implement.

If a sampling of opinion in the Valley is any indication, the idea doesn't fly.

"We're not going to bus everyone back to the border, and we're not going to put them in prison," said Meredith Woods, 55, of Phoenix. "Those are just stupid ideas."

Lifelong Valley resident Hazel Peterson, 83, of Sun City West, also objected, and said candidates' positions on reform "could well affect the way I vote."

"I favor a responsible solution," Peterson said.

Woods, in turn, said, "I'm not looking for someone who has a snappy sound-bite answer."

Observers of the national political scene doubt that McCain has harmed his presidential prospects by bucking conservatives who want stringent action and no provision for citizenship.

Standing fast "just adds to his likeability" among voters who favor a less-onerous approach, said national pollster John Zogby, who has done work for McCain.

"He hurts himself when he tends to go contrary to that maverick image and appears to be crossing into the conservative side, something he's been doing lately on other issues," Zogby said.

David Mark, a Washington, D.C.-based political analyst and author, disputes the "maverick" label in this case.

"Quite the opposite," Mark said. "There's a lot of folks in the business wing of the party who've been pushing for a guest-worker plan. By doing this, he has ingratiated himself with these party leaders."

At any rate, McCain loses little by alienating the hard-liners, said Charlie Cook, editor and publisher of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter based in Washington, D.C.

"Those are people who are never going to vote for McCain, anyhow," Cook said. "The only time they'd vote for him is against Hillary Clinton."

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