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Not much room for movement on immigration

A constituent mailing sent out this month by U.S. Rep. Tom Price quotes him as calling America's immigration policies "badly broken" and declaring that it's time to "secure our borders."

But that hasn't stopped a political newcomer from Cherokee County, John Konop, from launching a primary campaign against the Roswell Republican based primarily on the charge that Price is soft on illegal immigration.

Add that to criticism of U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., for supporting President Bush's proposed guest worker program and of GOP Gov. Sonny Perdue for not getting out in front of state legislation aimed at illegals, and you've got an issue that is dividing Republicans.

"It's pretty clear that there are hard-liners and relative moderates on immigration in the Republican Party," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "They just have a fundamentally different view of the immigrant world."

Hard-liners, whether in Washington or Atlanta, tend to talk about illegal immigration in terms of the negative effects of the wave of illegals entering the U.S. in recent years, mostly from Mexico and other Latin American countries.

They cite statistics on what it's costing the state and federal governments to provide health care for illegals who lack insurance coverage and to educate their children, with their limited English skills.

At the federal level, hard-liners champion solutions with the same emphasis on interdiction that has typified the war on drugs, calling for more money to beef up the human and technological resources available to keep illegals out. There's even a bill pending on Capitol Hill calling for construction of a 2,000-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border from San Diego to the Texas Gulf Coast.

At the state level, the strategy is to make Georgia a less attractive destination for illegal immigrants by requiring proof of citizenship from anyone seeking taxpayer-funded social services.

Then there's the Republican moderates. They tend to talk about the increasingly vital role illegal immigrants are playing in the U.S. work force, particularly in agriculture, textiles, construction, landscaping and the hospitality industry.

Between their relative lack of marketable skills and their illegal status, these immigrants are hardly in a position to negotiate high wages or extensive benefits. As a result, they're an attractive labor pool for many of the corporations that open up their pockets to Republican politicians at election time.

"Some Republicans are influenced by business interests who love cheap labor," said Phil Kent of Atlanta, national spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control.

"Republicans have to be careful," Sabato said. "They have a lot of key financial supporters involved in this issue, business people who depend on undocumented aliens. ... They can't afford to turn off the spigot of money at a crucial moment."

Konop said Republicans who recently voted for the Central American Free Trade Agreement - including Price - are doing the bidding of big business.

He compared CAFTA to NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement adopted by Congress more than a decade ago.

"We were promised ... that (NAFTA) would lower illegal immigration and create a trade surplus," Konop said. "All this policy has done is help the multinational corporations. ... These policies failed, and we keep repeating them."

Republican hard-liners also have been cool toward Bush's guest-worker proposal, which would allow illegal immigrants to stay in the U.S. for up to six years before returning to their native countries if they pay a hefty fine.

But Price said the guest-worker program will be a "nonstarter" in Congress until the nation's borders are secured.

Indeed, a push to make enforcing the nation's immigration laws the top priority is offering hard-liners and moderates some middle ground.

Price said that's because his colleagues of both parties, regardless of their personal leanings on the issue, are getting an earful from voters demanding a get-tough approach.

"Since January, more and more members of Congress from around the nation are recognizing what they're hearing is the same thing," he said. "More and more people want to get this done."

"What I'm getting from both sides of the aisle is, 'enforcement first,'" Kent said. "Then, they'll be looking at the guest-worker program.

"They agree on one thing and that's enforcement."

Dave Williams is a staff writer for the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.