When it comes to immigration — as with taxes, spending and abortion — Democratic Sen. Patty Murray and Republican candidate Dino Rossi agree on little.

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WASHINGTON — Dino Rossi wants to keep out illegal immigrants with “a tall fence with a high gate.” Sen. Patty Murray opposed building a fence along the Mexico border.

Rossi, the U.S. Senate Republican candidate, rejects a pathway to legal residency for illegal immigrants already living here. Three-term Democratic incumbent Murray voted for exactly that.

Rossi would open his arms wider for highly skilled and educated foreigners. Murray is more inclusive, favoring expanded guest-worker programs that would allow a larger pool of legal foreign labor for less-skilled jobs as well.

When it comes to immigration — as with taxes, spending and abortion — Murray and Rossi agree on little.

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In many ways, Rossi and Murray embody the rift between Americans who believe that large increases in legal immigration and accommodations for illegal residents ultimately undermine the nation’s security and economy, and those who believe that the country is largely enriched by newcomers.

Congress this year seemed poised to tackle the most far-reaching overhaul of immigration policies since 1986. The issue gained impetus from a controversial new law in Arizona that, among other things, required noncitizens to carry papers proving their legal status at all times or risk state charges. Major elements of that law are on hold until an appellate court rules.

The momentum for congressional action devolved amid partisan acrimony, with some congressional Republicans calling to review or even revoke the constitutional guarantee of citizenship for anyone born on U.S. soil.

Clear differences

Murray was one of only 19 members of the Senate to oppose a 2006 authorization to build a 700-mile fence along one-third of the southern U.S. border. Washington Democratic Sen. Maria Cantwell opposed it as well.

Murray also voted against declaring English the nation’s official tongue, which would have barred the government from issuing communications in other languages. She also opposed a Senate proposal to bar immigrants from collecting Social Security benefits they earned while working without legal status.

Rossi, by contrast, wants to deter illegal immigrants with both physical and legal barriers. He repeatedly has called for erecting the remaining planned fence along the Mexico border to reduce illegal crossings.

Rossi also opposes allowing any of the estimated 11 million people already in the United States illegally to apply for legal residency. However, he hasn’t called for deporting them. He has offered no options, saying he hasn’t “heard a good solution for the people that are already here that makes sense.”

Rossi has not joined the recent push by some congressional Republicans to review and possibly repeal a section of the 14th Amendment that bestows citizenship on anyone born on American soil.

“It’s not an issue he’s looking at,” Rossi spokeswoman Jennifer Morris said.

Morris, citing a busy schedule, said Rossi was unavailable to discuss immigration. Murray agreed to an interview about the issue.

In 2006, she voted for the first comprehensive immigration-overhaul effort since 1986, a Senate bill that would have tightened the borders, allowed long-term illegal immigrants to apply conditionally for citizenship and created a guest-worker program to permit more legal immigration. The bill died.

Instead, sensing an anti-immigration mood among voters, Congress voted five months later to build the 700-mile fence.

The Department of Homeland Security since has finished some 650 miles of pedestrian and vehicle fencing. Construction and maintenance are expected to cost billions of dollars in coming decades. A separate project to erect a “virtual fence” — cameras, radar and sensors — along the rest of the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border has been slowed by technical problems.

Murray defended her vote against the fence and her overall record on immigration, saying they reflect the values of many constituents.

“A lot of the families I talk to think that the fence takes away resources” that could be better spent on other ways to increase national security, said Murray, who has pushed for beefing up security farther north, along the Canadian border.

Employer accountability

The Obama administration has taken enforcement against illegal workers to aggressive new heights. Employers are facing greater scrutiny and fines, and at times are being pushed to fire undocumented workers.

Murray says she supports the administration’s efforts to “hold employers accountable.”

But, she says, immigration is a multipronged problem in need of sweeping answers — from porous ports to a shortage of seasonal agricultural workers to the millions of people who are settled in the country but consigned to illegal status forever.

“The immigration system is broken, and these raids are indicative of that,” she said. “But this isn’t sustainable.”

Asked if Rossi supports the crackdown on businesses, Morris said, “we need to enforce the laws we have now and encourage the use of E-Verify and other measures which close off jobs to illegal immigrants.”

The downturn in the economy has sharply curtailed the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States. The Pew Hispanic Center says the number of people in the country illegally dropped by an estimated 900,000 from 2007 to 2009. But that stemmed mainly from diminished entries, not an exodus among those already settled here.

About 60 percent of illegal immigrants in the country are from Mexico.

Senate Democrats on Tuesday hope to vote on a defense-spending measure that includes an amendment providing a path to citizenship for some children who were raised in the U.S. by illegal immigrants.

First introduced nine years ago in a different form, the DREAM Act covers certain illegal immigrants who are younger than 35. Immigrants who were 16 or younger when they entered the United States at least five years ago and who have completed high school or attained GED certificates could attain a six-year temporary residency.

The qualified immigrants then could become permanent U.S. residents by completing at least two years of college or serving two years in the military.

Murray said she supports it. Rossi, along with virtually all Republicans, opposes it as “nothing more than a backdoor amnesty bill.”

This report includes information from McClatchy Newspapers.

Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or ksong@seattletimes.com

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