By ANN McFEATTERS
The heated issue of what to do about the influx of illegal immigrants into America is threatening to become a dominant issue in presidential politics. That would be dreadful for this nation.
With 8 million to 12 million immigrants illegally living in the United States, the clamor is loud for changes in immigration law. But there is no consensus on whether there should be a guest-worker program or a dramatic new effort to keep out immigrants through enhanced border security or an all-out push to force those here without documentation to leave.
Senate Republican leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, a likely candidate for president in 2008, has clearly played politics with immigration, tying the Senate into knots as he argues for tough curbs on immigration. He believes that voters want a crackdown on illegal immigrants.
Other Republicans, such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, also a likely candidate, warn that the nation needs immigrants as well as a secure border. McCain argues that those here illegally should have the option to work toward citizenship if they register.
Others say illegal immigrants should register, pay fines and work here temporarily but eventually go back to their own countries.
Some Republicans, who see the huge potential in winning over Latino voters, are worried that a harsh approach on all illegal immigrants, no matter where they are originally from, would send Hispanics into the arms of Democrats, who have traditionally wooed them more vigorously than Republicans. But the nation’s 42 million Hispanics are increasingly politically sophisticated, with the result that neither party has a lock on their vote.
In the middle is President Bush, who says that, yes, the nation needs tougher laws to deal with illegal immigrants, but that, yes, the nation needs some form of accommodation to help employers unable to supply their labor needs with legal U.S. citizens.
The chaos on Capitol Hill over immigration is a sign of how extensive the discipline breakdown has become in the Republican Party, with the White House no longer able to control what happens in the GOP-dominated Congress.
The Senate appears to prefer a moderate approach that would permit illegal immigrants to get in line to become citizens, meanwhile working, paying taxes, contributing to Social Security and learning English. The House wants to make it a serious crime to be in this country illegally or even to go to the aid of illegal immigrants. Thus, someone who rents to illegal immigrants, treats them medically without reporting them, or employs them could be subject to jail time. Millions of people in this country without the right papers would be permanently ineligible to become citizens. What hope would they have for a better tomorrow?
Naturally, the debate is spurring protests around the country. The last thing we need right now as we fight a war abroad that many people find chillingly and uncomfortably close to breaking out into a religious war, is a nation torn apart by violent clashes over who should be permitted to be a U.S. citizen and who should be kicked out.
Already a survey of Latin Americans legally living in this country reports a new rise of anti-immigrant sentiment. That should worry everyone who lives in this polyglot of cultures that long has viewed itself as a melting pot and gold standard for the world on how to get along. Do we no longer welcome those who want to work hard, contribute, improve the lives of their children and help make this country great?
On the other hand, a post-9/11 nation cannot permit its borders to continue to be sieves, letting in anyone who wants to scramble under a fence in the Vermont woods or cross a dry riverbed from Mexico.
In all this turmoil there are a few certainties emerging. It is physically, morally and politically inconceivable that the United States will or can eject the bulk of foreigners already here illegally. Even if the House bill became law, it could not be enforced fairly and would merely cause widespread fear, anger and revolt.
However, some sort of national identity card is coming. So is a form of temporary-worker status. And it will become more difficult to become a U.S. citizen.
But any presidential candidate in 2008 who makes it his or her business to inject vitriol into the emotional immigration debate and divide the country even more should be scornfully rejected.
(Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)