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Illegal Immigration: Issue will be huge in '08 races

It's often said among the more cynical political observers that politicians would rather have an issue than a law.

Well, they've got a doozy for next year's campaigns now that Congress has rejected the latest effort at a comprehensive overhaul of the nation's immigration system.

"It has to be the hot-button issue of 2008," Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said Friday, one day after the Senate soundly defeated a procedural motion to cut off debate on the bill and move to a final vote. "Just about every candidate for president, the House and the Senate will have to take a position."

Back in May, President Bush and a bipartisan coalition of senators appeared headed toward getting a law and putting to rest an issue when they announced legislation that seemed to have found workable middle ground on illegal immigration.

Among others, liberal Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy and conservative Georgia Sens. Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson had come together on a measure that would get tough on illegals with stepped-up border security and worker verification rules while also offering the estimated 12 million people already here illegally a pathway to U.S. citizenship.

Isakson was the author of a provision to require the federal government to certify that certain border security and work place enforcement measures were in place before any of the bill's promises to illegals could be fulfilled.

Chambliss, ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, was involved in drafting a new guest worker program offered in the legislation.

But reaction across the country was harsh. A storm of voter outrage erupted over what critics derided as amnesty for lawbreakers.

Chambliss and Isakson, who had left themselves room to reverse their positions by not committing to vote for the bill, began demanding that the president put funding for increased border security into separate emergency spending legislation instead of folding it into the immigration package.

When Bush wouldn't go along, they had the justification they needed to vote to kill the bill.

Chambliss, who is up for re-election next year, portrayed what some called a flip-flop on his part as a willingness to listen to his constituents and respond accordingly.

"The resounding opinion we heard was: We do not trust the federal government to enforce the laws in this new legislation because it has never enforced our immigration laws in the past," Chambliss said after Thursday's vote. "We need to secure the border first and then deal with the collateral issues."

Phil Kent, Atlanta-based spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control, echoed Chambliss' call for an enforcement-first approach.

While Sabato and other observers now are predicting that Congress won't do anything about illegal immigration until after next year's elections, Kent said there will be "piecemeal" efforts to tighten up the Mexican border.

"If they start stringing some wire and pouring some concrete, we'll be a better country in a year," he said.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Officials, doesn't often find himself in agreement with Kent. But he, too, doesn't believe Congress will abandon illegal immigration entirely and relegate the issue to the campaign trail.

"I wouldn't put the nail in the coffin yet," Gonzalez said.

For one thing, businesses that rely on immigrant labor badly want the new guest worker program.

Gonzalez said Georgia will be hurt worse than other states by the legislation's failure because of the new state crackdown on illegal immigration that takes effect today. Georgia's new law coupled with the inaction of Congress will put businesses here on an uneven playing field, he said.

"Immigrants are going to be going to less hostile states," he said. "We're going to have Vidalia onions rotting in the fields next season."

But Sabato isn't looking for a legislative fix anytime soon. In fact, he said illegal immigration is such a divisive issue that it defies a solution.

"It's almost irreconcilable," he said. "The left feels strongly about it. The right feels strongly about it, and the center feels strongly about it.

"I don't know how we're going to get compromise legislation ever."

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.

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