By Eric Krol
Daily Herald Political Writer
In the nation's most-watched congressional contest, immigration has become the incendiary issue dividing Republican Peter Roskam and Democrat Tammy Duckworth.
The question of what to do about the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States has degenerated into harsh national Republican mail pieces, a Duckworth response ad calling Roskam a liar, Roskam referring to Duckworth's comments as "shrill" and Duckworth responding that Roskam should "stop whining" about negative campaigning.
That's some of the heat. Here's the light: Roskam supports the House immigration plan, which focuses on border security and penalties for those here illegally. Duckworth supports the Senate version, which has border security elements but also would allow citizenship for illegals who meet certain requirements.
Neither solution likely will become law before the Nov. 7 election, meaning that the successor to retiring U.S. Rep. Henry Hyde of Wood Dale will be dealing with the issue. Both sides of the battle have staged marches and counterprotests throughout the Chicago area this year. And it's an issue definitely on voters' minds in demographically changing DuPage County, where the Latino population has increased by nearly 30 percent the past five years.
The House measure would build a fence on the Mexican border, fine employers who hire undocumented workers and provide mandatory prison for immigrants who re-enter illegally after being deported.
"I think it has a strong emphasis on border security, and that's got to be the emphasis in terms of any rational discussion," said Roskam, a state senator from Wheaton.
Roskam cited President Reagan's 1986 immigration reform, saying border security was promised, but only a mass amnesty program for illegal immigrants took place.
As for what to do about the undocumented immigrants already here, Roskam opposes amnesty, saying the border would "need to be under control for a few years before the next conversation could take place."
The Senate version Duckworth backs would provide what sponsoring Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts are calling a pathway to citizenship. Illegal immigrants here longer than five years could apply for citizenship if they pay back taxes, learn English and don't have a criminal record.
"It's realistic and it can be implemented," said Duckworth, an Iraq war veteran from Hoffman Estates.
The measure also would create a guest worker program, lead to a border fence and make English the official U.S. language. But it's that "path to citizenship" provision that's led to all the hubbub in the 6th District contest. Those who oppose it say it's an amnesty program.
The National Republican Campaign Committee has filled 6th District mailboxes with ads blasting Duckworth for supporting "amnesty."
The blitz forced Duckworth to send out her own mail piece in response, featuring her wearing her Army helicopter uniform, saying she opposes amnesty. She also repeatedly accuses Roskam of lying about her stand on immigration.
Roskam said that calling him a liar is "probably the shrillest language" in a 6th District race in decades.
Duckworth fired back by saying "if it's a lie, I'm going to call it a lie" and issued a news release telling Roskam to "stop whining" about negative campaigning, citing tactics Roskam used in his failed 1998 congressional primary run against Republican Rep. Judy Biggert.
The latest national GOP tactic is a mail ad that rips Duckworth for supporting Social Security and other benefits for illegal immigrants, citing a Congressional Budget Office study that puts Social Security costs at $520 million a year.
A Duckworth campaign spokeswoman said Duckworth does not believe in giving benefits to illegal immigrants - the immigrants receiving benefits would be legal if they complied with the terms of the Senate plan.
Roskam and Duckworth also split on three other immigration questions. Roskam said local police departments, not just federal agents, should be allowed to detain illegal immigrants, while Duckworth opposes such a provision, saying it would add work to overburdened police officers.
Roskam supports using the National Guard to enforce the nation's border with Mexico. Duckworth, who served in the Illinois Army National Guard, said that's unworkable logistically because many guard troops are in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, Duckworth suggests doubling the number of border patrol agents to 12,000 and making better use of unmanned aircraft to scan the border for those illegally trying to cross it.
As for whether the influx of illegal immigrants is suppressing U.S. workers' wages, Roskam said yes, while Duckworth argued Bush administration economic policies and Congress not raising the minimum wage keep wages down.