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Craig, Crapo still think immigration bill may pass
Lawmakers differ on reform package, but Crapo now backs colleague's AgJobs plan to help Idaho growers
By Kevin Diaz - Statesman Washington bureau
Edition Date: 06/11/07

WASHINGTON — Flying home to Idaho on Friday, fresh from a stalled immigration debate in the Senate, Larry Craig was reminded of the old political adage, "If you have to go home and explain yourself, then maybe you shouldn't do it."
"Then there's the other side," he continued. "There are times when you stand up and lead because there's a national problem."

Craig, alone among his Idaho colleagues in backing a controversial deal on immigration, is counting on folks back home to see him as a practical problem-solver, not an apologist for illegal immigrants.

Among those who think he can pull it off is junior Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, a fellow Republican who opposes Craig on immigration, even as he has come to support a guest farmworker plan that has been championed by Craig.

"Larry Craig has done a super job of representing the hopes and values of people in Idaho for so long," Crapo said. "They understand where he's coming from."

Craig and Crapo still represent two sides of a deepening GOP rift over immigration.

Many Republicans, including Crapo, have assailed the fragile Senate coalition pressing for the legalization of as many as 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

But Craig has thrown in his lot with them, attaching his long-sought guest farmworker plan to the immigration reform package.

The immigration bill was blocked Thursday on a procedural vote, leading Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada to yank it off the floor.

But in separate interviews at a Washington airport, both Idaho senators said that they expect the bill to advance to a final vote in the coming weeks, after a bipartisan coalition of senators agree on a "finite" list of amendments.

The White House is also trying to breathe life back into the immigration deal, which has the support of President Bush. "We're encouraging Reid — Sen. Reid — to keep the debate open," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.

For Idaho farm interests, reeling from perennial labor shortages, the impasse is the latest setback in a decade of futility in trying to create a legal immigrant work force of pickers and farmworkers.

"It's such a tough political issue because we've got people on either side of it," said John Thompson of the Idaho Farm Bureau. "We have people who think they all need to be rounded up and taken out. But all the same, when you've got crops, you need the harvest. We need the workers."

Craig, who is considering running for a fourth term next year, has championed the cause of the state's growers, sparking criticism from groups opposed to illegal immigration as well from his leading opponent, former Democratic Congressman Larry LaRocco.

"This is not a popular position he has taken," said Thompson.

The state's growers say they understand people's sensitivities on immigration. But they also believe that, despite the latest setback in Congress, they have made progress in gaining support for at least the agriculture portions of the bill.

"We all come to the dinner table, but we don't take that next step and say, ‘Geez, where does this food come from, and who is involved?'" said Kelly Henggeler, a fourth-generation apple grower from Fruitland.

Craig has burnished his conservative credentials on immigration by joining Republicans in supporting amendments such as one making English "the national language."

He also voted against moving to a final vote on the bill Thursday, holding out for additional amendments — including one that he says would expand the requirement that illegal immigrants seeking permanent legal status in the U.S. first return to their native countries.

At the same time, he has taken pains to address the high-octane criticism that the immigration bill grants "amnesty" to illegal aliens.

"Amnesty is in the eye of the beholder," Craig said. "I think when you ask people to step up to a background check, pay a $1,000 or $5,000 fine, stay in their workplace and wait for 18 years for just the chance, if they want, of citizenship, I think that's called paying a penalty. I don't see that as amnesty."

Crapo has avoided using the word "amnesty" in his criticism of the bill, though he argues that the new probationary visas it provides amount to much the same thing.

"I don't believe that we should base immigration policy on any principle that gives people who illegally entered this country an advantage toward either citizenship or permanent legal residence," he said.

But Craig's special guest worker plan for farmworkers now passes muster with Crapo — who originally opposed it — because it provides only temporary visas and no direct path to citizenship or permanent legal status for illegals already in the country.

Nevertheless, Crapo said that he is still a "no" vote on the overall immigration bill.

That leaves Craig alone among Idaho's all-Republican congressional delegation in supporting the bipartisan immigration compromise, which has been led by Sens. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz.

Craig says it's a good deal for Idaho.

"You probably find an immigrant in every segment of the Idaho economy," he said. "They sent me here to solve a problem. I've tackled it, and I've worked with it. I'm not going to destroy the Idaho economy by simply rounding up all the illegals and sending them home.

"I want to round them up. I want to identify them. And I want to get them legal. That's the key."