Could immigration bill set off another backlash? Group says bill will cost $6.3 trillion
WASHINGTON — As a Senate committee prepares to begin voting this week on far-reaching immigration legislation, advocates are watching warily to see whether relatively tame opposition balloons into the kind of fierce resistance that killed Congress' last attempt to overhaul the system.
Last time around, in 2007, angry calls overwhelmed the Senate switchboard and lawmakers endured raging town hall meetings and threats from incensed constituents. The legislation ultimately collapsed on the Senate floor.
"I've been through this battle, and it's ugly," said former Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., who supported the bill. "My phones were jammed for three weeks and I got three death threats, one of which I turned over to the FBI. So it's rough business."
Supporters of the immigration bill brought forward last month by a group of four Republican and four Democratic senators have been cautiously optimistic about their prospects because of factors including public support for giving citizenship to immigrants, a large and diverse coalition in support of the bill, and a growing sentiment among Republican leaders that immigration must be dealt with if they are to regain the backing of Hispanic voters.
Backers have been working hard to build alliances and strategies aimed at avoiding the mistakes of 2007, when critics largely defined the bill and some supporters ended up turning against it.
Opponents acknowledge that supporters started out better organized and mobilized than last time around, and they also anticipate that outside groups pushing the legislation — including efforts headed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg — will outspend them. Supporters include large and influential groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, AFL-CIO and the Catholic Church, while opponents include lesser-known think tanks or advocacy organizations such as NumbersUSA, the Federation for American Immigration Reform and the Center for Immigration Studies. Both sides have already begun running ads.
But critics also have important grass-roots influence, including from talk radio hosts who were instrumental in defeating the bill in 2007, and opponents argue that as the public absorbs the content of the legislation, the tide will turn against it. They say that there are already signs that it's happening. Although conservative commentators on Fox News Channel and elsewhere have been more muted so far than in 2007, some talk radio hosts including Mark Levin and Rush Limbaugh have begun to voice deep unease about the bill despite the efforts of its conservative standard bearer, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to sell the legislation to them and other conservative opinion leaders.
"The supporters promoted the bill aggressively before anybody saw the language, and certain Republicans and conservative voices sort of held their fire, but that's beginning to change," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who was a leading voice in the Senate against the bill in 2007 and is reprising that role this time around, making floor speeches, issuing press releases and holding briefing calls with reporters to argue that the bill would unlock a much larger volume of immigration into the U.S. than advertised, to the detriment of U.S. workers and jobs.
"It's going to be like that mackerel in the sunshine — the longer it's out there the worse it smells," Sessions said.
The bill would aim to boost border security, fix legal immigration and worker programs, require all employers to check their workers' legal status and offer eventual citizenship to the estimated 11 million immigrants already living in the country illegally.
Joyce Kaufman, a host on a Florida radio station, WFTL, said that opposition to the bill was soft at first but grows daily.
"Yes, we believe this is amnesty," Kaufman said. "Citizen activists are outraged."
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