A group of protesters met U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss outside the Evans restaurant where he spoke to members of the Columbia County Republican Party on May 26.
The reception inside Fatz Cafe was only slightly more friendly, as Chambliss spent most of an hourlong speech explaining his views on a controversial immigration reform proposal and fielding skeptical questions afterward.
"Immigration is the No. 1 issue on our plate right now," Chambliss said. "It's critically important that we deal with it, now. ... I do support immigration reform, but meaningful immigration reform."
With fellow Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, Chambliss said he fought last year against an immigration reform bill while Republicans were in the majority.
Since Democrats took control of Congress in the 2006 elections, "We don't dictate the schedule any more," Chambliss said of the GOP. "We're not committee chairman anymore."
Thus, when this year's immigration reform proposal came forward, Chambliss said, he and Isakson had a choice of standing back and simply fighting any proposals they didn't like, or of actively working on reforms to mold them more to their liking. They chose to get involved.
"We knew that if we were going to have a chance at getting a change, we'd better get engaged," Chambliss said, adding that they understood working on the issue would be emotional and require collaboration with U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. - "a guy I have zero in common with."
As the protesters outside, including members of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, waved signs opposing any amnesty programs for illegal immigrants, Chambliss countered that "I could make you a good argument we have amnesty today" under current law that provides few penalties for illegal immigrants, and prohibits local law enforcement agencies from enforcing immigration laws.
The immigration reform proposal would grant temporary worker status, with a higher degree of documentation, for all immigrant workers who "come out of the shadows" to register and pay fines, Chambliss said, but it also would require them to eventually return to their home countries before applying for residency.
"A lot of people are going to manufacture 'amnesty' out of that," he said.
Another important part of the bill is that it would end "chain migration," by which a green card holder can bring in family members "all the way down to second cousins," Chambliss said.
As currently proposed, none of those rules would take effect unless a "trigger" written by Isakson is completed first, Chambliss said. The "trigger" requires certification of significant upgrades to border security before any of the other provisions of the bill could be implemented.
The bill still faces significant amendments, Chambliss said, emphasizing that neither he nor Isakson has committed to voting for the final version of the bill.
"At the end of the day you have to do the thing that you think is the right thing to do," he said. "We must take care of this issue and not leave it to our grandchildren."
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