WASHINGTON — While GOP presidential hopeful Bob Dole has been hammering President Clinton for failing to control illegal immigration, Clinton partisans have prepared ammunition of their own--Dole's long congressional voting record on the issue.
Although Clinton and Dole both have records on immigration, the Kansas senator has grappled with the issue in Washington for more than three decades in the House and Senate.
Dole portrays himself as tougher than Clinton on illegal entry into the United States, vowing recently that a Dole administration would declare war on the problem.
But Dole served in the Senate at a time when illegal immigration was not the heated issue it is today; his votes then do not coincide at times with the hard-line views he is advancing on the presidential stump.
"Dole is trying to ride the wave of anger toward illegal immigration and hope[s] his voting record doesn't catch up with him," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a Washington-based coalition of immigrants' rights groups.
Dole's legislative record on immigration illustrates a problem for the majority leader, who retires from the Senate today but leaves tens of thousands of votes behind in congressional archives.
Dole's immigration strategy is being orchestrated by California Gov. Pete Wilson.
Dole aides said that examining votes from years ago can be misleading because lawmakers sometimes vote against measures that contain elements they support. For example, Dole voted against efforts in the early 1980s to reimburse states for the costs of incarcerating illegal immigrants because then-President Ronald Reagan opposed the move as a budget-breaker and threatened a veto.
Since then, however, Dole has supported reimbursing states for the cost of illegal immigration and has criticized Clinton for not doing enough to help states recoup such expenses.
"Democrats must be pretty desperate if they are trying to distort Sen. Dole's strong career record on combating illegal immigration," said Dole spokeswoman Joyce Campbell.
Dole has cast many votes on illegal immigration in recent decades, giving Democrats considerable fodder to search out inconsistencies.
For instance, although presidential candidate Dole has endorsed a congressional proposal to allow states to ban public schooling to illegal immigrant children, Dole once opposed such a move during his Senate tenure. In 1982, Dole voted against a similar proposal that had been advanced by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.).
Dole said that Helms' amendment came too soon after a 1982 Supreme Court decision that it was unconstitutional for states to deny public schooling to illegal immigrant children.
"Fourteen years later, we have much better knowledge of the costs to the states of illegal immigration," Campbell said. "This measure doesn't require denial of benefits but appropriately leaves that decision to the states."
The public-schooling ban is a particularly thorny issue for Dole. His aides are mulling how he should handle it. The House included the schooling ban in an immigration bill it passed during the current legislative session, but the Senate version does not include the provision. Conferees soon will decide whether to keep it in the final legislation, and GOP lawmakers are looking to the Dole campaign for a sign.
On Monday, a bipartisan group of 47 senators urged Dole to abandon the public-schooling ban, saying in a letter that "the highly controversial and ill-advised provision" could derail the entire legislation.
The letter to Dole carried an unspoken threat not lost on the veteran legislative tactician: 47 senators could filibuster to block the immigration bill.
In 1986, Dole also backed amnesty legislation that gave legal status to 3 million illegal immigrants, a measure that likely would find little support in today's political climate.
Dole staff members explained that the amnesty provision was part of a package of immigration reform measures, a compromise granted to "longer-term illegal residents who were unlikely to return home."
But critics contended that Dole and many of his congressional colleagues had been acting at the behest of big businesses that are dependent on immigrant labor--before recent public outrage forced the issue onto the national stage.
"One of the reasons illegal immigration was a neglected issue in the 1980s was because agribusiness wanted a supply of cheap labor," said immigration activist Sharry. "Bob Dole and many others were very responsive to their concerns."
Neither Dole nor Clinton supported including guest-worker language in the current immigration bill. Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, noted that the public has become increasingly hostile toward illegal immigration in recent years.
With such opposition now widespread, Dole has touted his early support of Proposition 187, California's anti-illegal-immigrant initiative that Clinton opposed, and has noted that illegal immigration continues to be a big problem after Clinton's 3 1/2 years in office.
The White House, however, has pointed to initiatives that Clinton has launched to discourage immigrants from illegally crossing the Southwest border and from securing employment if they succeed.