Immigration stance changed Kyl's image, legacy
July 15, 2007

PHOENIX -- Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl has made unlikely friends with lawmakers across the aisle as his former supporters howl over his key role in this year's failed immigration compromise.

Kyl campaigned last year in favor of a temporary-worker program and other reforms but against an automatic pathway to legalization for estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the country.

Just six months after his re-election, Kyl worked with Republican Sen. John McCain, Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy, and others on a bill that critics say would have provided what Kyl said he was against.

"Who do you trust anymore when your heroes go south on you?" said state Rep. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican and a leading illegal-immigration opponent who described himself as a "brokenhearted" Kyl fan.

"You feel violated," he said. "It's like all of a sudden you learn that your best buddy has been dating your wife."

Kyl said he was a conservative voice in the immigration negotiations and that he won dramatic concessions from Kennedy that greatly improved the final legislation.

"Obviously, I wasn't thinking of my political career when I took the leadership role I did in the immigration debate," Kyl said in his office in Washington. "Sometimes you do what you have to do."

While Kyl has alienated some members of his party, he has gained allies in the Democratic party.

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a Democrat running for president, praised both Kyl and McCain for their work on the immigration bill.

"That's leadership from the Southwest," Richardson said during a recent visit to Phoenix. "I don't want to say too many more nice things about McCain and Kyl because that won't help them, but I commend both of them for their efforts."

Since he became a senator in 1995, Kyl has shared the spotlight with McCain, a two-time presidential candidate. In that time, McCain became a national figure as Kyl stayed in the background and earned a reputation as a workhorse and problem solver.

But Kyl's career has had its moments in the limelight.

In 2000, Dick Cheney interviewed Kyl as a possible vice presidential candidate for President Bush before taking the job himself.

Kyl was recognized as a national authority after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks for his work as chairman of the Judiciary Committee's anti-terrorism subcommittee. And last year, Time magazine named Kyl one of "America's 10 Best Senators," dubbing him "The Operator" and citing his prowess in legislative "subterfuge."

Last year, Kyl beat back a challenge to his office from independently wealthy retail developer and Democrat Jim Pederson as across the country, Democrats ousted Republicans from their seats and took control of Congress.

Despite the triumphs, some think Kyl's legacy will be negatively dominated by his stance on immigration.

"Unfortunately, that will be what he's remembered for," said Rob Haney, the Republican chairman in legislative District 11, where Kyl lives. "I think his legacy is going to be that he is the one who pushed the 'amnesty' bill against 90 percent of the Republican base and 80 percent of the country."

Kyl said anti-immigration advocates probably overstate the grass-roots opposition to comprehensive reform. But, he said it is wider than liberals acknowledge and is "a real phenomenon."

"The reality is that people are upset with their government, and I am a symbol of our government," he said. "They've got a right to be upset about a lot of things."