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Governors Weigh In on Immigration Debate


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. In this part of the program, some different views on the immigration debate. We've heard quite a bit about what politicians in Washington have to say, and as the debate moves to the Senate floor later this week, we're sure to hear more. But today we're going beyond the Beltway. We're going to hear how the issue is playing in Mexico, where President Bush meets with President Vicente Fox tomorrow. We'll investigate the economic impact of illegal immigration. And we're going to hear from two governors from two very different states. We'll hear their views on the proposals being put forward in the nation's capital.

NORRIS: We're going to begin in New Mexico, with Governor Bill Richardson. He's a Democrat, and as the leader of a border state and the nation's only Hispanic governor, he's taken an active role in the immigration debate. I asked him for his take on the pending legislation.

BILL RICHARDSON: I was encouraged that the Senate Judiciary Committee moved forward with what I think is the answer to this issue, at least a partial answer. And that is strong border security but coupled with a guest worker program and legalization plan, which I believe is absolutely necessary. My concern is that what's passed the House, which has fines for every undocumented worker, making it a felony to be in America, I think it's just unacceptable, with a wall, and it's going to cause a lot of problems. I'm a border governor. I have to live with this issue every day.

NORRIS: You know, the measure that you mentioned in the House, this sort of get tough approach to impose criminal penalties on those who either aid or employ illegal immigrants, that's in stark contrast to many of the things you've done in New Mexico, where undocumented workers can get driver's licenses, they can attend university, in some cases take advantage of state services. You know, some look at New Mexico and say that's not exactly the best model. They say that this is an incentive for people to skirt the rules.

RICHARDSON: Well, what I did six months ago, Michele, I basically ordered a border emergency, because there was such a flow of drugs and illegal workers coming in. What is paramount for us is border security. But at the same time, I believe, it makes sense to bring a lot of these immigrants out of the shadows, therefore with driver's licenses. What you're able to do if you give them driver's licenses, one, you reduce traffic problems, deaths on the highways. Two, you're able to know where they are. Third, you find ways to lower insurance.

It's a way that they assimilate. And I believe the provisions in the guest worker initiative that is floating in the Senate, the legalization plan, is you have good standards of behavior. Make them learn English. Pay back taxes. Pay fines for coming in illegally. Don't get in front of those that are trying to get here legally from either Germany or Ireland or Mexico. Find ways that there are background checks. Make sure they're law abiding. What's the alternative? The alternative that all these other folks don't want to address is deportation. You're going to knock on the door of every illegal immigrant's home and take them back to Mexico?

NORRIS: Well, I just want to ask, though, the fact this has reached a head in an election year, is that somewhat fortuitous, because lawmakers will be held accountable for their views and their votes, or does it instead lead to more posturing instead of real debate or real solutions?

RICHARDSON: Well, it's hard to say. The fact that it's, it's still enough time before an election. I think if the Congress acts on this issue within a month, my remembrance is that this does not become a huge barometer issue in November. But if it languishes and they wait until September, then nobody will want to vote, so it'll be postponed. My view is that no bill is better than a bad bill. But we've got to deal with this issue. Otherwise it'll get into the '08 election, and nobody wants that.

NORRIS: Governor Richardson, thanks so much for your time.

RICHARDSON: Thank you.

NORRIS: That was New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. He's a Democrat. We now turn to Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty. He's a Republican and he joins us now. Governor, good to be with you.

TIM PAWLENTY: Thank you, and it's good to be on the show.

NORRIS: Governor, I'm going to begin where we did with Governor Richardson and ask your assessment of the current debate in Washington over immigration reform.

PAWLENTY: Well, first of all, I think it's an important issue facing the country. It's obviously a situation where our current policies and laws are no longer adequate for the current situation. I think it's important, though, regardless of what side of this issue you may be on, that the tone be thoughtful and constructive.

NORRIS: So looking at the House and the Senate side, where do you stand on those measures?

PAWLENTY: I don't think you should choose, or we should choose, between the House position and some of the Senate positions. I think we need to do both. We need to have tougher enforcement and a crackdown on illegal immigration, with strong border enforcement and tougher penalties on illegal immigrants and employers who knowingly foster illegal immigration. And that we should also, in addition, then move to install a temporary worker program like some of the Senate proposals have put forth.

NORRIS: There's a deep split within the Republican Party, your party, over this issue, and from the perspective of a Republican governor, I'm just curious to hear from you, what's going on with the party?

PAWLENTY: Well, I think what's going on is we have a system that is currently broken. You know, our current immigration laws and enforcement mechanisms are not adequate. And so they're in need of updating. They're in need of being more rigorous. And so what's taking place, I think, is a debate over how to best do that. And on the one end of the continuum you have people who say, oh, don't do anything. And on the other hand you have people who are taking unrealistically harsh approaches, saying, you know, we're going to throw everybody out in the country and we're going to start over, and that's not realistic either. And so we have to find some reasonable and thoughtful common ground between those two positions.

NORRIS: Now, Minnesota has a unique, and what might be surprising to many people, immigrant population. It ranks as a hub for African and Asian immigrants, particularly immigrants from Northern Africa. I'm wondering how that changes your position in this debate, and whether you think the debate right now is largely dominated by immigrants of Hispanic descent.

PAWLENTY: Well, I really think it's important to distinguish between legal immigration and illegal immigration, and we should all be supportive of immigration that's legal. And in Minnesota many of the immigration populations that you just mentioned are here legally. They're refugees. So we welcome them, and that's part of a legal system that we should support. The problem arises really in the illegal immigration. That is not exclusively Hispanic, but there's a big portion of that that is Hispanic. It's in part because of our proximity to Mexico, but it's not only Hispanics. And it shows up in real, tangible forms.

NORRIS: I'm just curious about the view of the immigration reform debate from out there in the Midwest. If I were to walk into the local Perkins Cake and Steak, what might I hear if people are talking about this?

PAWLENTY: The average Minnesotan, I think, would say, look, we realize things have gotten out of hand. The federal government has been asleep at the switch. You can't be a country with a rule of law where you've got this massive number of people ignoring the law, because it makes a mockery out of it, and it leads to other kind of cynical views about the importance of our laws and legal system. And that's why this needs to be changed.

NORRIS: Governor Pawlenty, thanks so much for your time.

PAWLENTY: You're very welcome.

NORRIS: That's Minnesota's governor, Tim Pawlenty. We also heard from New Mexico's Bill Richardson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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