WASHINGTON -- Republican candidate Lee Zeldin is making border security and the placement on Long Island of 2,200 Central American children who crossed into the United States illegally a major issue in his bid to unseat Rep. Tim Bishop (D-Southampton).
In news releases issued on three days this past week, Zeldin portrayed himself as a problem-solver while criticizing Bishop as being part of the partisan gridlock in Congress that failed to respond to the border crisis before the August recess.
"As for the 2,200 immigrant children who just flooded Long Island this year, Tim Bishop prefers to defend the surge rather than confront it with leadership and action," Zeldin wrote.
Bishop rejected that assertion and blamed the divided House Republican majority for not passing legislation. In an interview, he said the solution to the "humanitarian crisis" is not easy but includes better border security.
"In the House, the debate wasn't a debate between Republicans and Democrats. The debate was between the far right of the House Republicans and the far far right," Bishop said. "That's where the paralysis and dysfunction comes from."
Raising immigration problems might help Zeldin solidify his conservative base in the East End district.
"Before he can reach out to moderate independent swing voters, he's got to make sure he has his conservative base solidified," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies. "And one of the ways Republicans do that is talk tough on immigration."
Levy added Zeldin must also avoid appearing "too ideologically extreme" to avoid alienating "middle of the road voters" who will decide the election.
Zeldin, a state senator from Shirley, is making his second run against Bishop as the Republican and Conservative parties' candidate in what is considered one of the most competitive House races in the state. Bishop, who defeated Zeldin in 2008, is facing his third tough race in a row as he seeks to win a seventh term. In an interview, Zeldin said he's highlighting border security problems because as he talks to voters, immigration "frequently pops up as the most important issue."
Zeldin said lawmakers in Washington should sit down as they do in Albany "to find common ground" and agree to a compromise to fix immigration.
Yet Zeldin said he would vote against the comprehensive immigration bill passed in the Senate with bipartisan support last year because he opposes a path to citizenship for the 11 million people here illegally, a provision he calls "amnesty."
Zeldin blames immigrants who are in the country without legal status for raising costs for schools and public services on Long Island, which he said is driving hard-pressed families away.
He also raised the fear of terrorism: "The Department of Homeland Security has reason to believe ISIS may be plotting an attack on the United States through our Southern border," he said, using another name for the militant Islamic State group.
A DHS official said there is "absolutely nothing credible to substantiate this claim."
Bishop, who doesn't list immigration as an issue on his campaign website, said that over the years he has voted for more patrols, surveillance and fencing at the border with Mexico. But he also co-sponsors the House version of the Senate immigration bill, which he said would pass if the House were allowed to vote on it.
Bishop said Zeldin's stance was in line with that of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an immigration hard-liner, rather than Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), a moderate: "He has thrown his lot in with the Steve Kings and not the Pete Kings."