Sen. Charles Schumer speaks at the U.S. Capitol. (April 13,...

Sen. Charles Schumer speaks at the U.S. Capitol. (April 13, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

WASHINGTON - "People who enter the United States without our permission are illegal aliens, and illegal aliens should not be treated the same as people who entered the United States legally."

That wasn't radio host and former CNN broadcaster Lou Dobbs in one of his trademark commentaries on illegal immigration.

It was Sen. Charles Schumer, the liberal New York Democrat now in charge of the Senate bill for a comprehensive overhaul of immigration.

He picked up the issue after opponents won two years ago by branding previous legislation as "amnesty" for those here illegally and a failure at halting illegal immigration.


Center stage in reform battle

Schumer, who met with Dobbs in February, said he's betting that with tough talk and tougher legislation that will end illegal immigration and boost legal immigration, he'll succeed where others failed.

That's a wager being watched closely by the national coalition of immigrant advocates, big business and big labor that's pushing Congress and the White House to act on immigration this year.

The prospect of the bill moving forward this year likely will be decided in the next few weeks, as Republicans decide whether to sign on to the effort.

Yet language again will play a key role in the debate, especially in describing the 10 to 12 million people in this country who don't have U.S. permission to be here.

The legally correct term is "illegal alien," said Kris Kobach, a former Bush lawyer who opposed the 2007 overhaul bill.

"There is no such thing as an 'illegal immigrant,' because an immigrant is a lawful resident of the United States," Kobach said. "It's perplexing, this politically correct twisting of the English language."

Some Latinos and advocates detest the term "illegal alien," calling it harsh and dehumanizing. Many say "undocumented" workers or immigrants instead.

"I can't figure out who's illegal without a finding" in immigration court, said Patrick Young, a lawyer who runs the Central American Refugee Center in Hempstead. "It's like calling someone a criminal before they've been convicted."

Along those lines, more recently, some advocates have used "unauthorized immigrants."

But when Schumer took over the Senate immigration chair last year from Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), he spoke to Latinos and activists at meeting in June - making the remark about "illegal aliens" and repeating that term often.

"You're not going to hear me use the words 'undocumented workers,' " he told them, making many cringe. "When we use phrases like 'undocumented workers,' we convey a message to the American people that their government is not serious about combating illegal immigration, which the American people overwhelmingly oppose."

Immigrant advocates say they've complained often in private to Schumer, and he has since substituted "illegal immigrant" for "illegal alien."

Yet many immigrant groups accept his approach in hopes he can win the 60 Senate votes needed to pass an overhaul.

"He's talking tough because he wants to be seen as a law-and-order Democrat who really wants to end illegal immigration," said Frank Sharry, executive director of America Voice, an immigration reform group.

Kennedy would say the same thing, he said, "but he would mostly talk about the humanity of undocumented workers."


Hoping to win over skeptics

Schumer, Sharry said, "is highly focused on winning over skeptics and winning the votes of conservative Democrats and gettable Republicans."

While Dobbs has softened his view on providing a path to citizenship, Schumer hasn't won over such foes as Kobach, or Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford).

Yet he also borders on alienating allies on the left. Young said he's skeptical of the approach: "It hasn't worked so far."

But Schumer continues to talk tough. On "Meet the Press" recently he said that "15,000 people cross our border illegally every day. Most of them take jobs from Americans."

"It makes me uncomfortable some- times," Sharry said. "But there's an old Spanish saying that it doesn't matter if the cat is white or black as long as it catches the mouse."

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