Atlanta Journal Constitution–Boos, hisses greet defense of immigration reform bill

Saturday, May 19, 2007, 01:06 PM
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Delegates to the state Republican convention unleashed a rare chorus of boos and hisses at U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss on Saturday, as he spoke up for a bipartisan immigration reform package unveiled in Washington this week.

Chambliss had just finished emphasizing his devotion to border security provisions contained in the measure, and brought up agriculture’s need for temporary, foreign workers.

“We’ve got to face the fact that we’ve got to create a new, truly temporary worker program” — the boos started here, but Chambliss plowed on — “for that segment of our economy that need temporary workers.

“If we don’t have a meaningful, workable program, we’ll simply be dependent on foreign imports for food products, the way we’re dependent on foreign imports for oil products,” Chambliss said, finishing his thought.

After the speech, Chambliss said he took the crowd’s reaction as a lack of popular understanding of the shape of the current immigration system.

Both Chambliss and U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson spoke at a breakfast meeting, then before 1,200 or so delegates who gathered in the Gwinnett County Civic Center.

Isakson was first. He laid out the enforcement and border security aspects of the immigration bill, due to come up before the Senate this week.

His speech was short, and received polite applause. “We have the opportunity and a narrow window to change what has plagued our society for 21 years,” Isakson said.

The current bill does just that, he said, endorsing “citizenship the right way, the naturalized way, the speaking-English way.”

Chambliss, the state’s senior senator who is up for re-election next year, did most of the talking.

He explained that he and Isakson engaged with Democrats — after their attempts to change immigration last year were blocked, in a Republican-controlled Congress.

“Today is a different day in Washington. Republicans are not in control. The Democrats have decided that an immigration bill is coming to the floor.

“We could either sit on the sidelines and we could throw rocks, or we could become engaged and make what we knew was a bad bill, better,” Chambliss said.

But he promised that both he and Isakson were not inalterably committed. “You need to know, you did not elect two potted plants to the Senate,” Chambliss said.

But he also had a word for critics.

“We either come up with a comprehensive immigration package or we have the status quo,” he said.

“Please don’t believe what you hear or see on radio and TV,” Chambliss said. “We’re not asking you to trust us. But give us an opportunity to explain it to you.”

Ritch McCutchen, a delegate from Crisp County, sat in one of the areas that produced the boos for Chambliss, but said he didn’t join in.

McCutchen, who recycles used machinery for a living, said he’s willing to give Isakson and Chambliss the benefit of the doubt, for now. “I have a question about whether it will work,” he said.

The issue of illegal immigration has the potential to create a serious split in the party, on a state and national level.

“If this gets categorized as amnesty, it could cause the party to split next year, particularly if the top of the ticket is viewed as too liberal,” said Mark Rountree, a political strategist who works with Republican candidates.

By liberal, he meant former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani. Rountree wants former Tennessee senator and actor Fred Thompson in the ’08 presidential race.

Immigration is yet another of those issues that where the fault line separates the business community from the ideological base of the party.

Supporters of the immigration bill backed by Chambliss and Isakson include Gary Black, a former candidate for state agriculture commissioner.

“We just can’t turn our heads anymore. We’ve got to find some resolution,” Black said.

He’s a member of a group formed only in the last few weeks, called Georgia Employers for Immigration Reform.

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