By Diedre Shesgreen
If Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., is treading carefully in the current Senate debate over immigration reform, it's no wonder.
On the one hand, he's hearing from business interests --such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation --who say the bill is vital to meeting their workforce demands and keeping the economy humming.
On the other hand, conservatives in Missouri have pressed Blunt to oppose the bill, arguing that it amounts to "amnesty" for immigrants who have come to the U.S. illegally.
Then there are the political pleas from his GOP colleagues in the Senate, who see the immigration overhaul as critical to the survival of the Republican Party. After the 2012 election, in which GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney won only 27 percent of the Hispanic vote, some in the GOP have touted the immigration reform bill as the best way for the party to win over that growing constituency.
"We're in a demographic death spiral as a party," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said recently, "and the only way we can get back in good graces with the Hispanic community, in my view, is (to) pass comprehensive immigration reform."
Blunt has navigated gingerly through those crosscurrents. He's expressed "serious concerns" about the current Senate bill, but said he sees ways to improve it.
He voted in favor of opening debate on the overhaul, even as he said he would not vote for final passage unless the measure met three goals:
*Securing the border;
*Addressing "legitimate" U.S. workforce needs; and
*Dealing with those who are currently living in the U.S. illegally.
Blunt has not specified how he would address that third item --the most politically explosive question in this debate.
And on Friday, Blunt said he opposed a newly crafted border-security compromise, designed to win support from GOP senators whose main focus in the debate is beefed-up border security. The compromise would double the number of border patrol agents, from 21,000 to 40,000, and double the length of secure fencing, from 350 miles to 700 miles.
But Blunt is not persuaded, a signal that he remains deeply skeptical about the overall proposal.
"I'm concerned this amendment doesn't adequately put border security first, which must be our top priority," Blunt said in a statement Friday. "As I've repeatedly said, I can't support a final bill that does not first and foremost secure our border."
He said he also was disappointed that other border security amendments have been defeated, saying "thus far, the Senate bill still fails to address this critical challenge."
The current Senate bill would create a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants now living in the U.S. The measure, crafted by a bipartisan group of senators known as the "Gang of Eight," would also funnel billions of dollars into border security.
And it would streamline the legal immigration system to bring in more foreign workers --both highly skilled workers sought by companies like Boeing and low-wage workers sought by farmers and factories.
Garrett Hawkins, a lobbyist for the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation, said the agriculture industry has made it clear to Blunt that the immigration overhaul is a priority.
"We understand the notion of immigration reform can be sensitive and divisive, but the farm labor situation in some sectors is nearing a breaking point and, if ignored, the implications will be felt by farmers and consumers," Blake Hurst, president of the federation, wrote in a recent letter to Blunt.
It's a particularly pressing issue for dairy farmers in southwest Missouri, who need help milking cows "365 days a year, 24/7," said David Drennan, executive director of the Missouri Dairy Association.
"These are jobs that our own kids won't do," Drennan said. "Having access to labor that wants to work, that's willing to work, and to work those kinds of hours is imperative for the dairy industry in this country."
But Blunt is hearing from others, too, such as Bill Gracy, a member of the southwest Missouri tea party, known as SWMO.
He recently sent Blunt --along with other Missouri lawmakers --an email about the immigration bill. "Shut the damn border," it read.
"Until that happens nothing, nothing else should be discussed," Gracy said in an interview. He called the Gang of Eight immigration proposal "worthless" and said it would be politically perilous for Blunt to support it.
Stephen Yale-Loehr, an immigration expert and professor of law at Cornell University Law School, said Republicans like Blunt have to walk a fine line.
"There are competing constituencies in reforming our broken immigration system," he said. Big businesses, he said, "may provide a lot of cash to fund a campaign, but it is the political base that often determines who wins a primary."
Blunt has signaled that he's receptive to the concerns of business and agriculture, saying it's "reasonable" to look to immigrant labor for jobs that Americans won't or can't fill.
He has also hinted that he would be open to supporting a path to citizenship --but only if the final immigration proposal closes off the southern border.
He has co-sponsored several amendments to restrict illegal immigration, including a measure that would require border agents to stop 90 percent of people trying to cross the southern border illegally. That goal would have to be met before any undocumented immigrants currently here could start down the path to citizenship.
Critics said that provision was designed as a "poison pill" to kill the bill, not strengthen border security. But Blunt said it would create a "standard of operational control" and help demonstrate to the public that "the border is controllable and controlled."
"The American people will be pretty reasonable" about treating "people fairly who have made a mistake in getting here" and increasing visas for new immigrants, Blunt said, but only if they are convinced the government has stopped the flow of illegal crossings.
As for the prospect of bringing Hispanic voters into the GOP fold, Blunt said he is not making political calculations as he weighs the immigration legislation.
"I don't think we should do this for political reasons," he said.
On that count, Yale-Loehr, the immigration professor, said Blunt is spot-on.
Passing immigration reform might give Republicans a "fighting chance" to win the support of newly legalized Hispanic voters, he said.
But there's really "no clear answer" about how the politics of immigration reform will play out, in part because, under the Senate bill, it will take more than a decade before undocumented residents to win legal status and become eligible to vote, Yale-Loehr noted.
"A lot can happen during that time," he said.