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Harry Reid looks for elusive middle on immigration

CRISTINA SILVA
Associated Press Writer

LAS VEGAS – Sen. Harry Reid’s latest Nevada campaign advertisement says he’s tough on border security.

But in Washington, Reid is also pushing legislation that would let some illegal immigrants become legal U.S. residents.

The Democratic Senate majority leader is trying to find an elusive middle ground on a hot topic in his campaign for re-election against Republican tea party challenger Sharron Angle.

Angle supports tougher immigration enforcement, and she and GOP leaders say Reid can’t be both friend and foe to illegal immigrants. They maintain that Reid has supported reform programs in recent years that undermine border security and entice new illegal immigrants to the United States.

The four-term senator, however, says the nation can’t address national security without pulling illegal immigrants from the shadows.

“The two are not mutually exclusive,” said Martine Apodaca, a spokesman for National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group. “It is easy to say we should deport everyone. It is much, much harder to do what Harry Reid is doing and actually come up with solutions.”

Reid announced this week he intends to introduce the so-called DREAM Act as an amendment to an upcoming defense bill. The act would let illegal immigrants who attend college or join the military become legal U.S. residents.

The immigrants must have entered the country when they were under 16 years of age and have lived here for five years. Military recruits must serve at least two years and complete two years of college.

The legislation has been introduced in previous sessions, and it was unclear how successful the bill will be this time around. Republican leaders do not support the measure, and some Democrats are wary of debating immigration reform so close to critical midterm elections.

Democrats gained power in 2008 on promises to pass comprehensive immigration reform, but have not followed through despite continued reassurances from Obama and Reid.

In Nevada, where polls show Reid tied with Angle, a recent Angle campaign ad labels Reid, “The best friend an illegal alien ever had.” The ad ties Reid to the passage of a sweeping, bipartisan immigration bill in 2006 that did not become law and claims Reid supported giving illegal immigrants tax cuts and social security benefits.

The ad twists his record. Reid voted to give those rights to illegal immigrants only after they became legal residents.

But that clarification is nowhere to be found in the response ad the campaign released this week. Instead, the television ad highlights Reid’s votes to beef up border security.

The campaign also released a very different Spanish-language response that heralded Reid’s support of the DREAM Act.

Reid’s tightrope walking reflects the perceived importance of Nevada’s Hispanics, who make up a quarter of the population and could propel Reid into a fifth term.

When addressing these voters, Reid has embraced his reputation as one of the most sympathetic immigration advocates in the Senate.

“He has been an ally for undocumented youth here in Nevada because he sees our struggles,” said Ricardo Cornejo, a University of Nevada, Las Vegas student who has organized rallies in support of the DREAM Act.

But critics say Reid has often downplayed his outreach to the immigrant community when addressing broader audiences, especially when it comes to border security.

“You can’t do both,” said Jena Baker McNeill, homeland security policy analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C. “You have to enforce the laws to ensure border security.”

Angle, who boasts of having bilingual grandchildren, has stressed she supports legal immigration.

Her views on illegal immigration, however, reflect a mounting conservative push to create an unwelcoming environment that encourages self-deportation.

Angle supports Arizona’s strict immigration law and stiffer penalties for employers who hire illegal workers.

A recent Las Vegas Review-Journal poll showed 54 percent of Nevadans said they believe illegal immigrants taking jobs away from citizens.

Reid’s staff said his push for reform is not amnesty because it requires illegal immigrants to learn English, pay fines and pass a background check.

“Sen. Reid’s immigration proposal is firmly focused on returning the rule of law to our broken immigration system, something the Hispanic community strongly supports,” said spokesman Jose Parra.