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Getting into America

A historian of U.S. politics says Republicans will be divided on immigration

Click here to hear the interview with Julian Zelizer. Requires RealPlayer®.

The war in Iraq may have dominated headlines for the past three years, but last week it was stories about illegal immigration that spilled across the newsstands and brought hundreds of thousands of people across the country out to rallies and protests.

The question of how to handle the estimated 11 million people living illegally in the United States, as well as the millions more who dream of coming here, touches on such powerful issues as business, fairness, and the American Dream. And with the Senate currently considering two very different immigration bills, it carries the potential for enormous political fallout for elections this year and in 2008.   

Julian Zelizer, a CAS and GRS professor of history and an expert in American politics, believes the impact will be greatest on Republicans who are caught between three forces: business interests who want cheap labor, a large and growing Hispanic electorate, and a base of supporters who believe illegal immigrants take American jobs and strain taxpayer-funded services. 

“It’s one of these issues that’s not as front-page as national security or Iraq or the corruption stories,” says Zelizer. “But it is a fundamental, core policy issue where there are real divisions within the Republican Party. There are serious divisions about how to handle really what is one of the great public issues of our day.”

In fact, the two opposing immigration bills in the Senate have high-profile Republican backers. One, coauthored by Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Senator Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), would offer undocumented workers a path to citizenship if they have been working for six years, have clean criminal records, pay back taxes, and learn English. It would also establish about 400,000 temporary visas for “guest workers.” The other bill, introduced by Senator Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate majority leader, would make illegal entry to the United States a felony (it’s now a civil offense), strengthen enforcement against those who hire undocumented workers, and offer no path to legal status for those who sneak into the country. It is similar to a bill passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in December, which also proposed building a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border.   

Zelizer spoke with BU Today about the immigration debate and how it could determine not only who lives in America, but who is elected to lead it. To listen to the interview, click here (5:26).

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