What Others Are Saying

Atlanta Journal Constitution
May 28, 2006

Isakson a vocal force in immigration reform
By Bob Kemper

The House and Senate, preparing for a long, hot summer of negotiations over immigration reform, may not be able to reach a final compromise unless they revive a proposal first raised more than a week ago by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), lawmakers and immigration activists say.

The House, in a bill passed in December, decided that securing the U.S.-Mexico border is the only way to curb illegal immigration. However, the Senate voted Thursday to take a more comprehensive approach, including creating a guest worker program President Bush wants and providing millions of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

Isakson's proposal, the fruit of scores of conversations he's had with Georgia voters, would have required the 2,000-mile border be fully secured before any other reforms could be enacted. Such a change --- even if watered down to allow some reforms to be enacted before the border is 100 percent secured --- would bring the Senate closer to the House position and provide a basis for negotiations on other parts of the legislation, congressional and immigration officials said late last week.

The two bills must be reconciled before any part of them becomes law.

"I don't think it's possible for a [compromise] to come out of the House without this," said Isakson who has already fielded inquiries from House members interested in reviving his idea.

A number of lawmakers and immigration advocates said Isakson's proposal could provide a vital "bridge" between the Senate position and the House bill.

It is a potential comeback for Isakson's idea, which the Senate rejected last week as the initial salvo in a series of amendments that bill supporters charged were intended to scuttle the legislation.

The controversy pushed the freshman Marietta Republican into the national spotlight for the first time, and in an unaccustomed role.

Isakson is usually a loyal supporter of Bush, but his amendment fanned the flames of opposition to the guest worker and citizenship programs, which he and other opponents label an "amnesty" for lawbreakers.

It brought into relief a deep divide within the Republican Party --- between conservatives and moderates, between the White House and Congress --- that political analysts said could exacerbate the party's already burgeoning political problems going into the fall congressional elections.

But Isakson's hard-line approach reflects a new awareness of the issue of immigration in states like Georgia that, though far from Mexico, have experienced a surge of immigrants, many of them illegal.

Many constituents have expressed concern about the burden they believe the newcomers are placing on social services, law enforcement and schools.

"It was very helpful in 2004 to be out there [campaigning]," Isakson said. "There was not a forum or debate in 2004 that I went to when the first question I got after the war on terror wasn't about immigration."

Georgia's senior U.S. senator, Saxby Chambliss, who is also a Republican, backed Isakson's amendment after getting the same message from voters.

"Regardless of where Georgians stand on dealing with the current illegal population, the constant refrain I hear from folks back home is 'secure the border,' " Chambliss said on the Senate floor. "If we do not secure the border and have serious interior and work site enforcement, then we have accomplished nothing."

Both Chambliss and Isakson voted against the final Senate bill because it didn't emphasize border security.

With his Senate showdown, Isakson once again put on national display the conservative approach Georgia has taken to illegal immigration and underscored for Bush just how far he has diverged from some of his core supporters on the issue.

Georgia's Republican-run General Assembly this year considered some of the most severe immigration measures seen in any state Legislature, including denying basic health services to people who can't prove citizenship and charging illegal immigrants a 5 percent surcharge when they wire money to relatives in other countries.

In Congress, Georgians --- ranked among the most conservative state delegation on Capitol Hill --- were influential in shaping the House immigration bill, which focused almost exclusively on border security and punitive measures.

Isakson said the message from Georgians is simply that reforms will do nothing to stem the flow of illegal immigrants until the border is secured.

"I've never been stopped [so often] in airports, had my Sunday school interrupted or had so many voice mails at home," Isakson said. "I've been stopped by a lot of people and none of them were negative. That's rare."