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Candidates, Congress Grapple With Immigration

REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Rebecca Roberts.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the Senate, debate over immigration has become a drawn-out bickering match. Majority Leader Harry Reid has been trying to force a vote on legislation this week. Among other things, it would beef up border security and give undocumented workers a chance for eventual U.S. citizenship. While Republicans and Democrats are blaming each other for holding things up on Capitol Hill, out on the campaign trail, the presidential candidates from both parties are being forced to address immigration.

NPR's David Greene reports.

(Soundbite of protesters)

DAVID GREENE: Rallies sounding like this have become commonplace around the country.

(Soundbite of protesters)

GREENE: Latino groups telling politicians in Spanish, yes, it can be done. You can give illegal immigrants a shot at U.S. citizenship. Normally, leading Democratic politicians would side with immigrant groups, but things are more complicated these days because of voters like this.

Mr. KENT STUFFLEBEAM(ph)(Resident, Iowa): We are being invaded.

GREENE: Kent Stufflebeam has been involved in Democratic politics in Iowa for years. But when you catch him these days, all he wants to talk about is how angry he was last time he stopped in a rural Iowa town to go shopping.

Mr. STUFFLEBEAM: And I couldn't find any place downtown that spoke English in any of the stores. I know I'm 75 years old, pretty set in my ways, but I think if you're going to live in this country, you should speak English.

Mr. WOLF BLITZER (Anchor, "The Situation Room"): I want you to raise you hand if you believe English should be the official language of the United States.

GREENE: That was the question CNN's Wolf Blitzer put to the Democratic presidential candidates in their debate in New Hampshire this week. Few rushed to put their hands up. No one had an easy answer. Listen to Hillary Clinton.

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democrat, New York; 2008 Presidential Candidate): The problem is that if it becomes official instead of recognized as national, which indeed it is - it is our national language. If it becomes official that means in a place like New York City, you can't print ballots in any other language.

GREENE: One Democratic hopeful who might have been expected to back an immigration overhaul is Bill Richardson. He's Hispanic and the governor of New Mexico. But instead, since Democrat Ted Kennedy and the White House unveiled the compromise bill, Richardson has spoken out against it.

Governor BILL RICHARDSON (Democrat, New Mexico): I would not support legislation that builds a wall, a Berlin-type wall between two countries, the way the bill in the Congress exist today.

GREENE: Others like Senators Clinton and Barack Obama have done a careful dance. They say they like immigrants. They like tough security and they oppose amnesty. As for the current bill, they are keeping their options open.

Now, if the issue is a political mess for Democrats, Republicans have it even worse. President Bush and many in the business community have broken with their Republican base and backed the compromise in the Senate. And that has splintered the party.

Representative TOM TANCREDO (Republican, Colorado; 2008 Presidential Candidate): I am willing to do whatever is necessary to try to stop this piece of legislation, and that includes go after any Republican that votes for it because the Republicans can stop this.

GREENE: That's Tom Tancredo. The Colorado congressman is running for president. He is a long shot, but his talk about how illegal immigration could ruin the nation has fired up the Republican base and pressured other candidates to speak out against the bill. Here is Rudy Giuliani.

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI (Former Republican Mayor, New York; 2008 Presidential Candidate): The problem with this immigration plan is it has no real unifying purpose. It's a typical Washington mess.

GREENE: And Mitt Romney.

Mr. MITT ROMNEY (Former Republican Governor, Massachusetts; 2008 Presidential Candidate): What it allows is people who've come here illegally to stay here for the rest of their lives.

GREENE: The pressure has been especially intense on Arizona Senator John McCain, who helped craft the compromise in the Senate. McCain has been more measured in his support recently. But last night at a debate in New Hampshire, he stressed that many Hispanic Americans have fought in the U.S. Armed Forces.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; 2008 Presidential Candidate): So let's, from time to time, remember that these are God's children. They must come into our country legally, but they have enriched our culture and our nation as every generation of immigrants before them.

GREENE: McCain has become a minority himself. In the crowded field of 18 people vying to be the next president, McCain stands nearly alone in saying the immigration compromise on Capitol Hill would be a good thing for the country.

David Greene, NPR News, Manchester, New Hampshire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.

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