May 16, 2005

Ohio lawmakers differ over treatment of illegal immigrants

Copley Washington Bureau Writer

WASHINGTON – President Bush’s nationally televised pitch Monday for stronger border enforcement, combined with a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, impressed Rep. Ralph Regula but failed to win over Rep. Bob Ney.

“I think it was a pretty good speech,” said Regula, R-Bethlehem Township, after watching the speech at his home. “I think the number one concern of Americans is to secure the border, and he’s obviously going to take steps to do that. But you have to have a comprehensive program, and he does have that, too.”

Ney, R-Heath, who has taken a harder line against illegal immigration, expressed conditional support for Bush’s plan to temporarily buttress border enforcement with 6,000 National Guard troops. The plan should go forward only if the already stretched Guard can handle additional responsibilities, he said.

But Ney remained adamantly opposed to the temporary worker program and path to citizenship for illegal immigrants advocated by the president.

“Those who have come here illegally have broken the law and instead of being rewarded with amnesty they should be sent back and be forced to go through the same lawful immigration procedures that those here legally have gone through,” Ney said in a prepared statement.

Both Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, and George Voinovich, R-Ohio, previously have expressed support for what Bush has called a comprehensive approach to immigration reform.

In a prepared statement, Voinovich credited Bush for pushing for an immigration bill. He said he hopes the Senate will “quickly pass comprehensive reform that will secure our borders and help maintain our competitiveness.”

DeWine, who was flying to Washington from Ohio Monday night, was unavailable to discuss the president’s speech. But a spokesman said he wanted to take a “hard look” at deployment of the Guard along the border because the Guard is “already stretched thin.”

At least one Ohio Democratic lawmaker pounced on the speech.

“Under the Bush administration, illegal immigration has worsened,” said Rep. Sherrod Brown, D-Avon, in a prepared statement. “Republicans have cut homeland security funding, destroyed FEMA, dismantled border patrol operations and overextended National Guard forces across the country.”

Brown, who is challenging DeWine in the Senate race this fall, criticized Bush for requesting only 200 additional border patrol agents in 2006 and 1,500 for 2007, even though a commission that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack recommended adding 2,000 more agents each year.

“Now the president wants to burden state resources already stretched dangerously thin,” he said. “We must stand up to the president on behalf of the safety of Ohio families.”

Though he voted for a tough border enforcement plan that passed the House in December, Regula believes that bill is too harsh. He said he agrees with the broad outlines of the president’s plan.

Regula wasn’t sure if the 6,000 additional border patrol agents proposed by Bush are enough, but he said it’s a “good beginning.”

He also supports temporary use of the National Guard to help secure the border, which he said is necessary to prevent infiltration by terrorists.

Regula backs a temporary worker program, something he said is needed by American businesses.

He also favors a path to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants as long as they do not get preference over others who are seeking to immigrate to the United States legally.

Ney embraces the House-backed plan, and on Monday he urged the Senate to reject a guest worker program in its version of the legislation.

Though he was leaning in support of Guard deployment, Ney said it wouldn’t solve illegal immigration in the long run.

“The problem exists not only along our borders but in our cities and small communities across the country where millions of illegal workers are keeping wages artificially low and draining precious taxpayer resources from our coffers,” he said.

Along with securing the border, Ney said, the federal government should provide state and local law enforcement with resources to enforce immigration laws.

Earlier in the day, Regula was among two-dozen or so lawmakers invited to receive a preview of the president’s speech in a teleconference with top Bush strategist Karl Rove.

Regula believes the briefing was held to win over undecided lawmakers.

Unlike more pessimistic political analysts, Regula predicts the House and Senate will agree on an immigration bill this year.

“I think the result will be that there will be enough of a sense of urgency in both houses to reach a compromise that will be acceptable, and the president will continue his effort to keep the sense of urgency on,” he said.