As Congress takes up a sweeping overhaul of the nation’s immigration system, U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) has come under pressure from a divided Republican Party on how he will vote on the topic.
“He is under pressure from both sides,” said Kerwin Swint, a political science professor at Kennesaw State University. “The stalwarts that don’t want any kind of immigration package or the others who say we’ve got to do something, so he’s just kind of caught in the middle a little bit.”
When asked Friday about how he intends to vote on the bill, Isakson said, “We’re not going to prejudge what the final version is going to be until it’s marked up, debated and amended — so any question that precludes that process taking place is premature.”
A pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants who are already here is going to be highly controversial in certain key circles of the Republican Party, Swint said.
“The tea party and others are going to resist anything like that tooth-and-nail. They’re going to fight it tooth-and-nail, and that’s the kind of pressure that he’s under,” Swint said. “He’s a smart guy. He’s a reasonable guy, and I think he knows that the Republican Party is at a real crossroads, and they’ve got to do something, but doing something comes at a cost, and a lot of people on the right are going to say doing anything like that is unacceptable. You know, it’s ‘selling out’ or ‘giving up’ or whatever you call it.”
But, at the same time, the Republican Party must start winning at least a portion of Hispanic and female votes if it wants to be competitive, Swint said.
“The question is, how do you do that without losing your base or losing that part of the base that won’t compromise on things like that? And a big problem with that for a lot of candidates is the Republican primaries.”
Swint pointed to the race to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.), noting how U.S. Rep. Paul Broun (R-Athens) has been endorsed by Ron Paul for the seat. Broun is campaigning on a platform that the tea party movement and conservative base embraces.
“But is that where the party wants to be nationally, that’s the thing, and how long will Republicans be able to win on positions like that in a state like Georgia? Five years? Ten years?” Swint asked.
Isakson did draw a line in the sand in the Friday interview on one aspect of the proposed immigration bill.
“Border security is the trigger for anything else being done, that’s correct,” Isakson said, when pressed on the issue.
Closing off the border
U.S. Rep. Tom Price (R-Roswell) agreed that the first step to regaining the trust of the American people is controlling and strengthening the border.
“That’s what was promised in 1986 and it wasn’t accomplished,” Price said Friday. “I think that the conversation gets a whole lot more civil and a whole lot more honest once the border is controlled and secured. Until you do that, it doesn’t make any difference.”
Deporting the millions of immigrants already in the country illegally wouldn’t make much difference with a porous border that would allow them to cross right back over, Price said.
“So that is a futile effort until you control and secure the border, and then have that honest discussion about what level of legal immigration we should have,” Price said. “We waste hundreds of millions of dollars on educating young people from other countries, being educated here, and we send them all back when they graduate, which doesn’t make any sense at all. So there are huge flaws in our immigration system, which need to be corrected at the same time.”
If ever there was a poster child for the incompetence of the immigration system it’s the Boston disaster, Price said.
“Here you’ve got a young man who’s here on a student visa that has expired, and he’s here because he came to the United States as a sanctuary from a country that was apparently persecuting him, and he left the United States to return to the country that was supposedly persecuting him,” Price said.
The man then returned on an expired visa without apparently any problem, Price said.
The tea party view
J.D. Van Brink, chairman of the Marietta-based Georgia Tea Party, said under no circumstances will he support a bill that allows for a pathway to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally.
“Citizenship is one of the most valuable things that we have,” Van Brink said. “If we want to preserve a constitutional republic we have to be very, very careful about our citizenship, and there are plenty of people who would love to come here and come here legally.”
Van Brink said his group strongly supports improving the system to make it easier for immigrants to move here legally.
However, his group is carefully watching those elected officials who decide to vote for a pathway for immigrants in the country illegally to become citizens.
“Pathway to citizenship, that is only for people who come here legally, period,” Van Brink said. “There is no compromise on that aspect of that and anyone who votes on it, well, the Georgia Tea Party is going to make a big issue out of it, I can tell you that.”
That message, delivered succinctly by Van Brink, is but one side of an issue that has many minefields for a powerful senator like Isakson.