WASHINGTON—A year ago, when Sen. Sam Brownback, the conservative Kansas Republican, co-sponsored legislation that would have allowed millions of illegal immigrants to seek U.S. citizenship, he was attacked as a liberal.
This year he's running for president, and now liberals are attacking him for flip-flopping on immigration.
"I understand when people are seeking re-election or going to a higher office, they do seem to have a change of heart," said Mary Lou Jaramillo, the president and chief executive officer of El Centro Inc., a Kansas City, Kan.-based group that aids immigrants.
Brownback, she said, isn't alone. Although both political parties acknowledge that the nation's immigration policy is broken, the 2008 presidential campaign is complicating efforts to fix it.
The Senate is debating a bill that would legalize millions of undocumented immigrants and create a guest worker program for as many as 200,000 low-skilled workers a year. But while the Bush administration supports it, many Republican candidates are distancing themselves from any legislation that the GOP's conservative base might consider soft on illegal immigrants.
Brownback and another of this year's Republican presidential candidates, Arizona Sen. John McCain, teamed up last year with Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts to sponsor legislation to provide better border security and create a guest-worker program for 12 million illegal immigrants.
Kennedy, who made his lone presidential bid 27 years ago, is among the sponsors of this year's bill.
Brownback and McCain aren't.
"I think you can't look at the changes in position of folks like John McCain and Sam Brownback and not draw the inevitable conclusion that their presidential campaigns have something to do with it," said Melinda Lewis, the director of policy and research for El Centro.
"I see so many conversions," said Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, an advocate of strict immigration controls, at a Republican presidential debate in South Carolina earlier this month.
Last year, Tancredo called Brownback "an extreme opponent of getting tough on illegal immigration." At the debate, he said the bill co-sponsored by Brownback and McCain "would have given amnesty to everybody who's here illegally," and he got laughs when he said he was glad to see the conversions but that he would trust them only "when they happen on the road to Damascus and not on the road to Des Moines."
Brownback declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this story.
In a speech on the Senate floor on Wednesday, he lamented the growing number of illegal immigrants in the nation, saying it's tripled to 12 million from 4 million in 1987. "Some people think that the solution is to grant undocumented immigrants amnesty ... but that won't work," Brownback said.
He said the "first and foremost" goal of any changes must be to secure the U.S. border, but that he hadn't decided whether to support this year's bill. "People are torn trying to balance two fundamental American principles: one of being a rule-of-law nation, and the second trying to be a compassionate society," he said.
Lewis said that opponents of immigration revisions "have a better grip on sound bites" and are flexing their muscle in states with early caucuses and primaries. Brownback, she said, isn't "spending a lot of time in Kansas right now. He's spending a lot more of his time in Iowa, South Carolina and New Hampshire."
"We've been through immigration debates in this country, and they can bring out the worst, sometimes, in people," President Bush told a press conference on Thursday.
"We're a land of immigrants. ... Sure, politics will get involved. But the question is, will members of Congress rise above politics?"
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
USNEWS GOPDEBATE (Brownback, McCain, Tancredo)