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Candidates diverge on thorny immigration issues

Harris has backed a tough House bill while Nelson leans toward a bipartisan compromise.

Published May 17, 2006

WASHINGTON — When Rep. Katherine Harris considers the illegal immigrants working the fields of southwest Florida or marching near the U.S. Capitol, she sees lawbreakers profiting from a broken immigration system and porous borders that could easily allow terrorists into the country.

She has voted to send most of them home.

Sen. Bill Nelson, the Democrat she hopes to replace, sees a broken system that needs fixing, too. But he says many of the estimated 12-million illegal immigrants in the country provide crucial labor to the construction, agriculture and service industries — staples of Florida’s economy.

He favors a bill that would allow many to stay and work.

After a series of nationwide protests by immigrants against a tough House bill that Harris backed, the Senate this week renewed debate over comprehensive immigration reform, the most ambitious legislation Congress will attempt this year.

As Nelson and Harris hit the campaign trail and encounter voters concerned about illegal immigration, a look at the candidates’ votes, legislation and remarks show voters have a distinct choice. They are alike  on some aspects of comprehensive immigration reform, divergent  on others.

But both also are trying to strike a delicate political balance that, in the end, may make their positions more similar than different.

Nelson says he will likely support the bipartisan compromise crafted by fellow Florida Sen. Mel Martinez, a Republican, that would allow illegal immigrants who have been here at least five years to stay, provided they work, pay back taxes, and meet other conditions. Eventually they could seek citizenship.

The bill would add thousands of border patrol and customs agents, and require businesses to verify their employees are legal. The latest version, expected to reach a Senate vote by next week, also includes an amendment that Nelson proposed last month to use high-tech aerial and electronic surveillance to monitor borders.

“Merging these two goals together, to get these people out of the shadows, working and paying taxes — which they are not — is what we need to do,” Nelson told about 40 people in Brooksville last week. “And at the same time, patrol borders.”

Under the Martinez bill, those here two to five years could get a temporary work permit and eventually seek permanent residency. Those here less than two years must leave.

It also would expand the so-called guest worker program, allowing more permits for seasonal jobs in agriculture and other industries.

Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and agriculture associations, favor the bill because it would allow a large pool of workers to remain in the country. They are lobbying Nelson to support it.

“We’ve been waiting for immigration reform for 10 years,” said Sharon Hughes, executive vice-president of the National Council of Agriculture Employers, which represents farm groups.

“It’s gotten to the point now with the shortage of not only legal workers, but the shortage of workers, period, we’ve got to have relief now.”

Nelson also backs a bipartisan bill, called the DREAM Act, that would make it easier for the children of illegal immigrants to attend college.

But moderate Democrats are wary of appearing too permissive toward illegal immigrants, and Nelson has been vocal in the need for tougher border security as well. He sponsored a bill aimed at MS-13, a Central American gang  , that would bar entry to anyone suspected of gang activity.

He also has offered an amendment that would increase detention space for illegal immigrants caught in the United States, so officials can hold them until they’re deported. Now, thousands are given a hearing date and released.

“They are here illegally, and what do you know — we don’t have the detention space in which to process them,” Nelson said on the Senate floor recently. “They are released. ... Guess what happens? They completely disappear.”

Harris’ approach to immigration has focused on law and order.

In December, she voted for the controversial House bill, H.R. 4437, that would make illegal immigrants felons and make it a felony to help them.

The bill would also beef up border security, and penalize businesses that hire undocumented workers. Illegal immigrants who are caught would be deported.

It makes no provisions for illegal immigrants to earn permanent residency, nor does it provide additional guest worker permits for some industries where the labor force could be cut short.

“This legislation takes the necessary first steps to strengthen our borders, prevent terrorist attacks, improve our efforts to curb illegal immigration, and reasserts our commitment to the rule of law,” Harris, a member of the Homeland Security Committee, said after the House passed the bill in December.

Most Florida Republicans in the House voted for it, too. Harris also has sponsored her own bill to enhance border security and cooperation among the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Her support for the House bill, written by Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., is popular with many of the Republican activists who attended her rallies in North Florida recently. But it also put her at odds with much of the state’s business community, including powerful tourism and agricultural interests, as well as Sen. Martinez, Gov. Jeb Bush, and President Bush.

Business and farm lobbyists hope to persuade her to back a more lenient bill, such as Martinez’s.

“She comes from an ag family, so certainly based on the family history in agriculture she understands the critical nature of having an available work force,” said Ray Gilmer, public affairs director for the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association.

On the campaign trail, Harris emphasized security and raised the specter of terrorists slipping across the Mexican border. Like Nelson, she’s concerned that captured illegal immigrants are often released.

“We have no idea where they are,” Harris said. “Ladies and gentlemen, some of those Middle Easterners  and others that cross the border — anyone who cares more about our death than their own life — is a serious threat.”

She has declined to discuss the Martinez bill, saying she didn’t want to comment on pending legislation. She also has voiced no support for allowing illegal immigrants who have worked in the country for years to become permanent legal residents, as the Martinez bill would allow.

But she said immigrants are an important part of the economy, and she supports allowing them to work here temporarily, a position that could satisfy the get-tough cravings of conservative voters as well as agriculture interests that rely on seasonal pickers.

In an interview, she acknowledged that the House bill was only “half the equation.”

“We have to find a way to allow this temporary work force that is well documented in terms of identification the ability to work here,” she said.

Times staff writers Bill Adair, Chandra Broadwater and Elena Lesley contributed to this report.

[Last modified May 17, 2006, 23:14:16]

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