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McCaskill buffeted by immigration woes, supports trimmed-down DREAM bill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 7, 2009 - As she tools around the state for a series of "Kitchen Table Talks,'' U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., is finding that the public is hungry for change. And not always the type of change that she would have expected.

The mood Tuesday among several hundred gathered in Union to hear the senator at East Central College was a mix of concern and anger. And not all of those emotions were directed at the nation's troubled economy, McCaskill's advertised topic for this week's round of "Talks."

(Even so, afterwards, McCaskill's staff announced that her Web site has a new Q and A game designed to dispel some untruths about the stimulus bill and related measures.)

At one point during the question-answer portion of the Union event, McCaskill called on people based on "who's the maddest?"

Some clearly were. One man angrily called for bombing North Korea, to put an end to their missile launches, like the one that captured headlines on Sunday.

Midway through the hour-long session, the audience shifted the focus into a back-and-forth over immigration, which some blamed for part of the nation's economic troubles.

"We need the fence! We need the military!" exhorted one woman in the audience.

McCaskill then fielded several inquiries as to why the stimulus bill didn't include money for more fencing along the United States' southern border. McCaskill replied that's because money has already been earmarked in other measures for the fence and other border security measures.

She defended the new head of homeland security, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano, from several audience complaints that she wasn't tough enough on the issue. McCaskill contended that Napolitano was perfect for the job because she understood the border-security problems since Arizona has been battling it for some time.

McCaskill, in turn, reaffirmed her longstanding argument that the best way to battle illegal immigration is to enforce stiff penalties on employers who knowingly hired illegals and, for example, "put 14 in a hotel room ...and pay them $200 in cash on Fridays" to work as roofing or lawn crews.

Such jobs are the real enticement for illegal immigrants and their disappearance is the best was to discourage it, the senator said.

However, McCaskill emphasized that she also had sympathy for some teenagers who had been brought to the United States as infants or toddlers by their illegal-immigrant parents. The teens (some who were unaware of their illegal status) now face deportation, because their status became known when they applied for college or the military.

"We have a heart-breaking example of young woman in mid-Missouri. Who's valedictorian of her class,'' McCaskill said. "Huge community leader in her church. Now having trouble staying the country because her parents didn't follow the rules.''

A few days ago, some members of Congress -- including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. -- introduced a new version of the so-called DREAM Act, that would allow such teens to remain in the country if they attend college or join the military.

"The DREAM Act is hard,'' McCaskill said. But she then added, "I will probably vote for the DREAM act. I didn't vote for it last time."

The difference with the new version is that it's tightly tailored to address only a limited number cases of illegal-immigrant teens who have been longtime U.S. residents and could be productive adult citizens, McCaskill said.

(According to Durbin's Web site, the proposed bill would apply only to those who:

"Have arrived here at the age of 15 or under;
Have lived in the U.S. for at least 5 years;
Graduate from high school;
Serve in the military or attend college for at least two years; and
Have good moral character." )

McCaskill's announcement won applause from some, and groans from others.

Among those in the audience who was pleased was Noe Guzman, 17, of New Haven, who found out that he was an illegal immigrant only when he applied to get into the military. He now faces deportation when he graduates from high school in a few months.

Guzman asked McCaskill if she would sponsor a "private bill'' to keep him in the country, should the DREAM bill not get passed in time. McCaskill said she would talk to him but added, "I have a problem with private bills'' which she explained to the audience were measures that applied to only one person.

The woman who called for the fence exhorted McCaskill, "Don't vote for the DREAM bill!"

After that, it was on to Sikeston for McCaskill. She explained to the now reved-up crowd in Union that she had to end that event in order to get to the Bootheel on time.

McCaskill added, "I'm not leaving here to just go polish my nails."

Reflecting the mood in Union, nobody laughed.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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