Are the Immigration Protests Creating a Backlash?

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Immigrants and prominent religious leaders protest on Capitol Hill for immigration reform

As thousands of people marched in rallies last week to oppose proposed curbs on illegal immigration, it seemed the rare cause that had galvanized people across the country and might affect Washington politicians. Indeed, when the Senate Judiciary Committee returned on Monday to hash out an agreement on a immigration reform bill, the result was an immigrant-friendly measure that increases the number of temporary work visas and creates a path to U.S. citizenship for illegal immigrants.

But the rallies may be provoking a backlash among Republican opponents of the bill. Republican Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Congressman who has been one of the leaders in the Houses push to curb illegal immigration, told the Denver Post the rallies only made him more determined to crack down on illegal immigrants. "All these folks who are here illegally know they can protest brazenly," he said. "It's really a mockery of our immigration system." He added that the protests make him even more determined to pass a House bill that does not provide for a guest worker program and would build a 700-mile fence along the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Texas Republican John Cornyn, who has supported a temporary worker program but one that requires illegal immigrants to leave the U.S. after working here for six years and apply for citizenship from their native country, said of the protests, "I don't think they're helpful," arguing that they will only inflame the issue. Mississippi Senator Trent Lott said that protests "make me mad," particularly when he saw that many of the flags flown at the protest were not red, white and blue, but flags of Mexico and other Latin American countries. "I dont like it and the American people dont like it," he said, adding, "When they act out like that, they lose me."

Whatever their views on the rallies, however, Republicans are also carefully considering how immigration will affect them politically. Some top Republican strategists, such as Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman, have long warned the party could permanently damage its chances of capturing the growing Latino vote if it seems to be a party that is opposed to immigration. The White House, which has aggressively courted Latinos, has taken a more immigrant-friendly approach, with President Bush pushing for a guest worker program. But much of the GOP conservative base is concerned about the problems of illegal immigration, and Senate Republican Leader Bill Frist, who needs their support for a possible run at the 2008 presidential nomination, is pushing a bill that emphasizes border enforcement without a guest worker program.

GOP pollster David Winston argues that the importance of border security resonates more strongly with the public than any other part of the immigration issue, despite the large turnout for last weekend's demonstrations. "The views of most of the people marching in the streets of L.A. and other cities last weekend bear little or no resemblance to the majority of public opinion in this country when it comes to illegal immigration," Winston wrote in a column for the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call. He cited polls suggesting the majority of Americans view immigration reform as a security issue, want to deny drivers licenses to illegal immigrants and support a larger fence along the Mexican border. But so far, the Christian, business and Latino groups that helped organized last weeks rallies seem to have the upper hand, and the Senate appears likely to adopt some kind of guest worker program.