Deal puts senators in tough spot

In politics, it's safe to say that a piece of legislation drawing fire from both the right and left probably has found middle ground. That's where Georgia's two U.S. senators, Saxby Chambliss and Johnny Isakson, are trying to set up camp with a bipartisan compromise on immigration reform they helped shape, working with Senate Democrats and the Bush White House.

But the two are finding the middle an uncomfortable place. This being Georgia, and Chambliss and Isakson being conservative Republicans, they've been subjected to a barrage of criticism for more than a week from a GOP base incensed over what the bill's opponents are characterizing as amnesty for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in this country.

"We're rewarding people who came here illegally," said Jimmy Herchek, a member of Georgians for Immigration Reduction from Gwinnett County. "This is just going to cause more people to want to come here."

It was Herchek who greeted delegates to last weekend's state Republican convention in Duluth with a sign that read, "No Amnesty: Deport pro-invasion politicians."

Some of the GOP faithful picked up on that message. Chambliss was hit with a chorus of boos when he addressed the convention to explain his position.

The negative reaction continued back in Washington last week, where the senators were deluged with calls from upset constituents.

On Thursday, the phone traffic got so heavy that Chambliss helped his front-office staff answer the calls.

"Some supporters could feel betrayed, that he's not representing their views," said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University.

But Chambliss and Isakson say they're not caving in to Sen. Ted Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who served as his party's point man in the negotiations that led to the compromise.

The two Georgians say the proposed deal includes the "conservative principles" they have long insisted be included in any comprehensive immigration reform package.

Chief among those provisions are the "triggers" that Isakson sought in vain to get into a Senate bill last year. Under Isakson's proposal, the federal government would have to certify that America's borders are secure before any of the non-security portions of the bill would take effect.

Also, a new high-tech system would have to be in place allowing employers to screen out undocumented job applicants. Chambliss said that in addition to the triggers, Democrats also made a huge concession when they agreed to prohibit "chain migration." Under the compromise, immigrants already here could seek legal residency only for their spouses and minor children. But to make the deal, Republicans had to give, too, Chambliss said.

What they offered was the new Z visas allowing illegals living in the U.S. to seek work permits, legal residency and, eventually, American citizenship. But the senators won't call it amnesty. They point to requirements that applicants serve a probationary period, pay a fine, learn English and get a job before qualifying.

Those seeking legal residency and citizenship also would have to return to their home countries and get in line. Qualifying for legal residency is still expected to take eight years, and becoming a citizen would take even longer.

Chambliss said he and Isakson decided to enter the negotiations to get the best deal possible from a Democratic majority determined to act on immigration reform.

"We could not let the Democrats write a Democratic bill," Chambliss said last week.

While Chambliss and Isakson defend themselves against criticism from the right, the very enforcement provisions they are holding up as the best parts of the bill are drawing fire from immigrant advocates.

"The fees, the length of time and the illogical notion of going back to their native county doesn't make practical sense," said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials.

"We want 12 million people to come forward. ... If we want to do that, we can't do it with uncertainty in the process."

Beset on both sides, the compromise could easily unravel as it goes through the Senate after the Memorial Day recess. Both Chambliss, who is up for re-election next year, and Isakson have left themselves wiggle room by tying their continued support to how the bill is amended.

Black said that, in light of the overwhelmingly hostile reaction the senators have received, jumping ship might be their best option.

"We're at the beginning of the process," he said. "It may be that on the final vote, Chambliss and Isakson vote against the bill."

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

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