Pennsylvania House Race Mirrors Maze Of Immigration Issue

Pa. House race mirrors maze of immigration issue

By Kathy Kiely
April 24, 2008

HAZLETON, Pa. In a year when veteran House Republicans are rushing for the exits rather than attempt re-election, Lou Barletta represents something of rarity: He's a Republican challenger who has a 24-year Democratic congressman worried. Key to the turf battle: the touchstone issue of illegal immigration.

Barletta, mayor of this northeastern Pennsylvania city, made headlines last year with efforts to drive out illegal immigrants, part of a wave of newcomers who headed to the Poconos after the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

Barletta, 52, spearheaded an ordinance allowing the city to fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and yank the business licenses of employers who hire them. He lost a federal court case (now on appeal) but won nationwide publicity and 90% of the vote in his re-election last November.

“I've been a voice for many people,” Barletta said.

Now, he's running to unseat Rep. Paul Kanjorski, a 71-year-old Democrat in a solidly Democratic district who is taking nothing for granted. Kanjorski has raised more than $1 million for his re-election bid, compared with $185,000 for Barletta. The race is a case study on how immigration continues to divide and dog both parties.

National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Cole's decision to recruit Barletta underscores the contradiction for Republicans: While the party's presumptive presidential nominee, John McCain, has been a voice of moderation on immigration, other Republicans are playing hardball.

In March, Republican senators introduced 14 immigration-related bills in one day. They included a bill by Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., to make English the official U.S. language and one by Sen. Elizabeth Dole, R-N.C., to ban repeat drunken drivers from becoming citizens.

In the House, Republicans are pushing a petition that would force a vote on a bill to crack down on illegal immigrants and their employers. The bill's author is a freshman Democrat, Rep. Heath Shuler. The former NFL quarterback says his western North Carolina district is plagued with illegal immigrants who also are drug traffickers.

Shuler's bill, which is co-sponsored by Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., would add thousands of new law enforcement officials and judges and require employers to verify the legal status of new hires.

Forty-nine Democrats are co-sponsoring the legislation, including 11 House freshmen, among the party's most vulnerable members.

Hearings on the legislation begin in May. If they hadn't been scheduled, Shuler contends, rebellious Democrats would have signed the Republicans' petition to force a vote on the bill.

“I'm hearing a lot of people say we want this bill,” Shuler said.

It takes 218 signatures to bring up a bill without committee action. Shuler's bill has 185 signatures, including Kanjorski's and eight other Democrats. Kanjorski added his name after the Republican Congressional Committee made an issue of the bill in his district.

Kanjorski declined to grant an interview to USA TODAY, but he provided responses in e-mail to written questions. He said he backs the Shuler bill as a means to “reduce illegal immigration” but noted that “there are other issues directly affecting voters” in his district. “My top priority in Congress right now is to help reverse the downturn in the economy,” Kanjorski wrote.

While Democrats from conservative districts, such as Shuler and Kanjorski, are pushing for action on a tough enforcement bill, Hispanic lawmakers are furious.

This week, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., called his party's leaders “spineless” for allowing hearings on the Shuler bill rather than taking up more comprehensive immigration legislation that includes a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.

All three of the remaining candidates for president last year supported a comprehensive Senate bill that included a legalization program. McCain who now says he “got the message” and favors securing the borders before pursuing any other immigration measures was one of the Senate bill's authors. Democrats Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama voted for it.

Yet none of the candidates is pushing the issue now.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said McCain sabotaged his effort to revive bipartisan immigration legislation. Stupak said his Republican allies disappeared after the Arizona senator's campaign put the word out that McCain didn't want an immigration debate.

“He doesn't want to remind his core supporters that he was in favor of immigration reform,” Stupak said his Republican allies told him.

McCain campaign spokesman Brian Rogers said Stupak's version of events is “absolutely untrue,” and declined to elaborate.

Barletta said he invited McCain along with Clinton and Obama to visit his city as they campaigned for the Pennsylvania primary. “What better place to discuss immigration?” he asked.

Barletta got no takers.