Image: Senators on immigration
Larry Downing  /  Reuters
Senators discuss the U.S. immigration reform measure co-sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., right, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., second left, on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Sens. Barack Obama, D-Ill., left, and Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., flank McCain.
updated 3/30/2006 9:00:42 PM ET 2006-03-31T02:00:42

Arizona’s leaders are in a bind over immigration, pressured by political crosswinds that reflect the growing national debate over how to control U.S. borders.

Republicans are bashing Republicans.

The Democratic governor is in cahoots with a GOP senator.

Both parties fear voter backlash.

Bordering Mexico, Arizona may be the perfect spot to show the state of policy and politics of U.S. immigration.

In a word, it’s a mess.

“You’ll find every view in Arizona,” jokes Rep. Jeff Flake, a conservative Republican from Mesa.

In the House, he has backed the approach of the state’s most notable politician, GOP Sen. John McCain, who wants to give illegal immigrants a clear path to citizenship through work.

Different politicians on same side
McCain’s position puts him on the side of President Bush and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce — and many prominent Democrats, including Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano and liberal icon Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Arizona’s junior senator, Republican Jon Kyl, also wants to help the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants remain in the United States legally, but his approach would make it harder for them. He wants illegal immigrants to return to their native countries before returning as so-called guest workers.

Then there is another conservative Arizona lawmaker, Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who has written a book that proposes building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border, using armed forces to help patrol the region and denying citizenship to the U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants.

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There is unanimity on one point in Arizona: illegal immigration is a major problem.

The state is the largest gateway for illegal immigrants, accounting for 54 percent of the 1.1 million apprehensions nationwide during the 2004 fiscal year. It is home to an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants out of the state’s population of about 6 million, a costly drag on health care, education and law enforcement budgets.

“Arizona has been devastated by this issue,” McCain said.

Long considered a federal problem, limited to a few “gateway states” such as California and Arizona, illegal immigration is now a front-burner issue across the country.

Illegal immigrants are moving to states like North Carolina, Iowa, Ohio and Georgia as they seek jobs and establish communities. North Carolina alone had 390,000 illegal immigrants in 2004, nearly 16 times its number in 1990, according to a Pew Hispanic Center analysis.

Immigration emergencies
Last year, Napolitano and Democratic Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico declared immigration emergencies in their border counties. Napolitano recently signed an order to expand the National Guard’s presence at Arizona’s porous border.

At a news conference this week, Napolitano praised McCain’s bill while calling Kyl’s approach “a fictional system.” She chastised the GOP-led House for passing a bill that focuses solely on border reinforcement rather than also dealing with illegal immigrants already working in the U.S.

“The House bill is a terrible bill for Arizona,” she said.

The backbiting didn’t stop there.

Hayworth accused fellow Republicans of carrying water for business interests who want the cheap labor provided by guest-worker provisions.

“It’s the ultimate corporate welfare scam,” he said on the “Imus in the Morning” television and radio program.

Flake, a guest-worker supporter, objected when Hayworth’s plan was called conservative. “I don’t think it’s conservative to ignore the problem,” he told The Associated Press. “If you don’t have a plan to deal with those here illegally now, that’s a huge part of the problem.”

The political stakes are huge. Hispanics are the fastest-growing group of voters, and President Bush has helped double the GOP’s share of the Hispanic vote since 2000.

'Sensitive times,' says McCain
McCain said those gains are at risk. “This issue has galvanized the Hispanic population in Arizona,” he said, pointing to protests this week in Arizona and several other states against the crackdown on illegal immigration.

“First, this is a warning to my party that we have to be sensitive about this issue,” McCain told The AP. “Secondly, the Hispanic community risks a backlash if it become unruly or too many Hispanic flags — and not enough American flags — are at these protests.”

“These are sensitive times.”

Sensitive, indeed, for McCain and other candidates lining up for 2008 presidential bids. They include Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, who staked out a position to the right of McCain, and Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who accused House Republicans of passing a bill that would criminalize “even Jesus himself.”

Polls show the issue has the potential to divide Democrats as well as Republicans. Many working-class Democrats resent what they consider to be a constant flow of cheap labor. The hard-line House bill was backed by 36 Democrats, including those considered most in danger of losing their seats in November.

Still, the fear is most palpable among GOP leaders. Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman said his party’s challenge is to improve border security “and do it in a way that is pro-immigrant.”

“Franklin Roosevelt built a durable Democratic coalition because large groups of American Catholics, Jews and ethnics” who otherwise shared Republicans values “were convinced that the Republican Party did not like them,” Mehlman said. “So we have to be careful.”

These being sensitive times, Mehlman was speaking on the telephone from Phoenix, where he was meeting with Hispanics.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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