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Sen. Smith's Immigration Vote Draws Scrutiny

Oregon Senator Gordon Smith is winning both praise and scorn for a vote last week on the issue of immigration.

The vote on a bill known as the DREAM Act did not get much media attention. Neverthless  Smith’s vote on it is getting a lot of scrutiny.

Those on both sides of the immigration debate sense a change in his position.  Next week, there’s another test of Smith’s positions on the issue, as Colin Fogarty reports.

Before entering politics, Smith ran his family’s frozen food business in Pendleton.  So he has close ties to agriculture.  Farmers and food processors are firmly behind efforts to make it easier to hire immigrants.

Back in 1999, Smith and his Democratic colleague Ron Wyden sponsored a bill to establish a guest worker program.

And in 2000, he spoke to a group of 1500 farm workers about in Woodburn.  Then he took to floor of the U.S. Senate to call for amnesty for undocumented workers.

He said illegal aliens are in his words “pillaged in ways that are unthinkable”.  In June of this year, Senator Smith spoke positively about an major immigration bill being considered at the time in the U.S. Senate.

Gordon Smith:  "I have always been and never made a secret in any of my campaigns that I believe the comprehensive approach is the way to deal with security legality and humanity.  I believe it should be tough.  I believe it should be fair. And ultimately it needs to work for our nation."

Yet, Smith voted no on that immigration bill, which failed in the U.S. Senate in June.  And last week he voted against allowing debate on a bill known as the DREAM Act.

It would provide a path to citizenship for college-bound children who were brought to this country illegally by their parents. Smith was unavailable for comment.  But his spokeswoman Lindsay Gilbride said the Senator voted no on the bill because it takes what she called a “piecemeal approach”.

She says Smith voted against the comprehensive bill in June because it allowed some illegal immigrants to simply buy their citizenship.  Gilbride, who declined to talk on tape, insisted Smith has not changed his position on immigration.

But two people on opposite ends of the political spectrum say there has been a change.

Jim Ludwig:  "Oh yes.  It’s a sea change.  I’m going to give him credit for the change that he’s made.  There’s a number of Senators that have switched on this issue."

That’s Jim Ludwig, with Oregonians for Immigration Reform, a group that vehemently opposed the immigration bill that failed in the Senate this summer. 

Ludwig’s polar opposite, Ramon Ramirez, with the farm worker union PCUN, goes further. He says Smith has flip flopped.

Ramon Ramirez: "I think it’s more than a flip flop.  He came down to Woodburn and talked to 1500 farm workers.  We have copies of his speech where he said, I’m here to fight for your rights, to legalize your immigration status.  And then when the vote really comes down, when it really means anything, he votes against farm workers."

But without that vote against the immigration bill this summer, Smith would have lost the support of many Republicans, according to Jim Ludwig.

Jim Ludwig: "Two things would have probably occurred.  One, he could have had a challenger in the Republican primary.  And second, a lot of Republicans just wouldn’t have voted.  They may not have voted for the Democrat.  But they just wouldn’t have voted."

On the other hand, Smith’s votes could alienate swing voters and Democrats who have voted for him in the past.  The collection of immigration bills this year is threatening to become a prominent issue in Smith’s re-election bid next year.

Attorney Steve Novick, one of the Democrats vying to take on Smith, sent out a press release blasting the Republican Senator for voting against the DREAM Act and the immigration bill.

Steve Novick: "It shows that he’s willing to do what it takes to get reelected.  And if doing what it takes means punishing innocent children and turning against his previous so-called moderation on immigration, that’s what he will do."

Smith will get another test of his views of immigration.

The U.S. Senate is expected to vote on a bill known as AgJOBS. It would create a program in which undocumented farm workers could pay fines and work an agricultural job while they earn legal status.

The measure would also allow farmers to hire foreign workers on a temporary basis under certain circumstances.  The bill is high on the agenda for farmers and immigrant rights groups.

Farmer worker union president Ramon Ramirez – who earlier called Smith a flip-flopper – has even harsher words for Smith if he votes against the AgJOBS bill.

Ramon Ramirez: "…not only is he playing politics, but he’s a liar.  And he can’t be trusted."

That AgJOBS bill could come up in the U.S. Senate as soon as next week, according to California Democrat Diane Feinstein’s office.

Smith’s spokeswoman Lindsay Gilbride said the AgJOBS concept is something the Senator has supported in the past.  But she says until he’s until he’s seen final version of the bill, she won’t speculate on how he’ll vote.

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