Brian Kennedy, a Republican candidate for Congress, stood near the banks of the Rio Grande as a photographer snapped a picture of a boat crossing the water behind him. Within days, he turned the image into a campaign ad, demanding "Do something about illegal immigration!"
The exercise in political theater was hardly remarkable, except for one notable geographical point: Kennedy lives 1,384 miles away from the site he selected along the Mexican border, and the congressional seat he seeks is an eastern Iowa district with a minuscule immigrant population.
As a fight over immigration intensifies next week in the Senate, politicians and candidates aren't waiting for a federal solution to what has become one of the more divisive issues in the midterm election year, a fact made vivid Friday by pro-immigration demonstrators in Los Angeles, Phoenix and Atlanta. More immigration-related bills have been introduced in state legislatures than at any other time in the last decade as Republicans across the nation scramble to distance themselves from the White House.
President Bush has urged a civil debate "in a way that doesn't pit one group of people against another." His advisers and party strategists worry that a rising anti-immigration sentiment could cost Republicans the support of Latino voters, the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. They also are concerned about alienating moderates and business leaders who rely on an immigrant labor force.
"This is a really tough political issue, particularly for Republicans," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.). "It's not just happening in border states. Anywhere you go, this is passionately, passionately raised, and people have a visceral reaction to it."
In Iowa, lawmakers have sought to prohibit illegal immigrants from buying homes. In New Hampshire, legislators have tried changing state law so undocumented workers could be charged with trespassing. In Colorado, lawmakers attempted to make employers liable for any "bad behavior" by illegal immigrants.
In other states, businesses could face felony charges and fines for employing illegal immigrants. Elsewhere, lawmakers have proposed denying health services to people who cannot prove their citizenship. Even though many of the proposals are unlikely to pass, nearly 400 bills have been introduced in at least 42 states, underscoring the scope of concern.
"Obviously the federal government has not done enough. It would be silly to suggest the current system is working," said Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty. "I don't know if it is a lack of will or lack of interest or if it has been too politically dicey, but states are hitting a tipping point."
After releasing a study showing illegal immigrants cost Minnesota taxpayers up to $188 million a year, Pawlenty recently proposed a seven-point plan to crack down on the problem. The plan drew applause from the Republican's conservative base but stirred criticism from Democrats and immigrant-rights groups.
"You can't use positive economic news to justify the behavior. There are all kinds of illegal acts that could boost the economy," said Pawlenty, who is seeking re-election this fall. "But as soon as I brought up the proposals, people on the left were spouting off that I was racist and those on the right also were using words that were harsh or inflammatory."
Governor eases position
Still, a week after announcing his initiative, Pawlenty took a softer approach and introduced another seven-point plan designed to help immigrants "play by the rules." His ideas include providing a $300 tax credit per family to help pay for English classes and citizenship application fees as well as increasing immunizations for immigrants.
Steve Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, said states' proposals have the potential of creating a chaotic patchwork of immigration laws rather than a uniform policy.
"It's an issue that is important in the public's mind, but politicians just don't know how to talk about it," said Camarota, whose group favors tighter controls on immigration. "The Republicans are tearing themselves to pieces over it."
To be sure, Democrats hope to achieve gains over immigration. Yet the party has its own struggles, particularly among blue-collar workers concerned about losing jobs to immigrants.
The fissures inside the Republican Party will be exposed when the Senate is scheduled to begin debating major immigration reforms next week. Among the points of contention is a White House proposal to create a guest-worker program for some of the estimated 11 million people who are living in the U.S. illegally. That proposal has met strong opposition from conservatives who consider it a form of amnesty for lawbreakers.
For three weeks, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee have struggled to reach a resolution that would toughen border security while also making some accommodation for illegal immigrants. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) has threatened to bypass that compromise legislation by bringing a hard-line enforcement bill to the floor. The House has passed a similar bill.
Republicans from border states and beyond say such a move could be politically disastrous.