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'A nation of immigrants'

By Libby Quaid
The Associated Press, April 8, 2001

WASHINGTON (AP) -- As the new chairman of a key Senate panel on immigration, conservative Sen. Sam Brownback is no stranger to the issue.

Brownback's Senate offices in Kansas handle more requests for immigration help than any subject except veterans' issues.

"It has consistently been our second-highest caseload," he said in an interview.

Besides experience, he brings an idealism to the job along the lines of Ronald Reagan's reminder -- made in his final presidential address -- that America is a nation of immigrants.

"An American is basically a person who agrees with a set of ideals; there isn't a physical tribal notion," Brownback said. "We believe in freedom, we believe in opportunity, we believe in justice, we believe in fair play, and we're willing to stand up for what we believe everywhere. That's the beauty of our tribe."

n the past decade, the Hispanic population in Kansas doubled to 7 percent of the state's nearly 2.7 million residents, according to new census data. Driving much of the growth were Mexicans who came to southwest Kansas to work in meat-packing plants in Liberal, Garden City and Dodge City. The office of Sen. Pat Roberts, Brownback's fellow Kansas Republican, dealt with more immigration cases last year than any other subject.

The issue is heating up as Brownback assumes the helm of the Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, taking over from a fellow conservative, defeated Michigan Sen. Spencer Abraham.

Mexico's new president, Vicente Fox, wants more Mexicans allowed to enter the United States legally, because his country doesn't have enough jobs for its unskilled workers, and wants them not only allowed to work in the United States but also protected by this country's labor laws.

President Bush, who dealt with Mexican immigration as governor of Texas, is treating the issue with seriousness as relations warm between the two nations.

Any changes in U.S. immigration policy will need approval from Congress, and that is where Brownback and his new job come in. Front and center is a guest worker proposal by Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, whose plan is controversial because it offers no prospect of permanent residency.

"We'll hold some hearings on this issue," said Brownback, who wants to study Gramm's ideas before committing to support or oppose them. "Immigration is going to be one of the key issues in U.S.-Mexico relations, and I really want to stare at that one a lot more."

This issue replaces the drive for more high-tech visas on the front-burner in 2001. Last year, Congress passed and President Clinton signed legislation allowing nearly 600,000 new H-1B visas, which allow college-educated foreigners to work up to six years in the United States.

A sharp slowdown in the economy's technology sector probably means that Congress won't revisit the issue, Brownback said.

Not that he will ignore the issue; Brownback has joined the Senate Republican High-Tech Task Force, and appeared at a news conference last month with Gerald J. White, president and chief executive officer of BV Solutions Group Inc., an Overland Park, Kan., information technology company, who talked about the need for streamlining the high-tech visa process.

Part of President Bush's first budget proposal is to spend $100 million in each of the next five years to hire more staff and add employee incentives to speed service at the Immigration and Naturalization Service -- even as he seeks to hire 1,140 new Border Patrol agents to help keep illegal immigrants out.

Along the high-tech lines, there is a related type of program that Brownback would like to see expanded: bringing physicians from other countries to work in rural hospitals and clinics.

Rural communities in the Midwest and Great Plains continue to grow more isolated, as more and more people move to cities and suburbs. New census figures show that over the past decade, a dozen rural Kansas counties lost upward of 10 percent of their population.

"If you lose a doctor in a rural area, you really lose one of your key lifelines," Brownback said, listing a handful of non-U.S. native physicians he met recently in such towns as Osborne and Holton.

Brownback hopes to boost the number of refugees admitted to safe haven in the United States.

The subcommittee chairmanship also gives Brownback a platform for one of his passions in the Senate, efforts to stop forced sexual slavery in other parts of the world.

He has the ear of a key Cabinet official: Attorney General John Ashcroft, his neighbor and ideological ally in the Senate.

In fact, Ashcroft had a news conference last week to publicize efforts to combat trafficking, announcing the creation of two new positions in the Justice Department's civil rights division to enhance prosecutions under last year's Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which Brownback helped move through the Senate.

Intended to protect thousands of foreign women and children forced into the sex trade in the United States and crack down on their victimizers, the law stopped the practice of immediately deporting victims, providing immigration relief of up to three years -- enough time to bring charges against sex trade traffickers. It also criminalized all forms of trafficking in people.

"He knows the issue; we've talked about it," Brownback said of Ashcroft, a former Missouri GOP senator who served with Brownback on the Foreign Relations and Commerce committees. "He was really willing to aggressively go forward with it."

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