Posted: March 29, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Delaware politics rarely gives a break to challengers -- not in name recognition, donations, organization, press coverage or mastery of the issues -- but the national debate on immigration is about as good a chance as Jan C. Ting could ask for.

Ting, a Republican running for the U.S. Senate, is a Temple University law professor regarded as an authority on immigration and a former assistant commissioner for immigration during the first Bush administration, not to mention that he is the son of Chinese immigrants.

Talking about immigration to Ting is like throwing Brer Rabbit into the briar patch. It is where he lives. He is a relentless advocate for border security and has made the construction of a fence along the southern boundary with Mexico the "No. 1 issue" of his campaign.

With the Senate engulfed in debate, emotional demonstrations throughout the country, news coverage alive with immigration and at least 11 million people here illegally, it is a matter of national security with economic and humanitarian ramifications.

It gives Ting a choice issue to ride as the Republicans' projected nominee against Sen. Thomas R. Carper, the Democrat running for a second term.

Carper, however, did not become Delaware's record holder for statewide victories with 11 elections as a treasurer, congressman, governor and senator by letting anyone steal a march on him.

Ting may be an expert in immigration, but Carper is an expert in politics.

Ting has staked out a bold and clear position. He wants a fence -- "The border is just out of control. You can't put enough warm bodies [for enforcement] on the border. The border fence is a force multiplier" -- and he is no friend of amnesty, which he defines as anything that puts illegal immigrants in a better position than those applying for legal entry because "it makes fools of the people who respected the law."

He is skeptical of guest-worker programs that invite foreigners to take jobs here temporarily and then go back -- because "I don't think anyone actually goes home."

Ting is inclined toward the bill sponsored by Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr., a Wisconsin Republican, and passed by the House of Representatives in December. It is the legislation that has sparked all the street demonstrations with its provisions that would make illegal entry a crime, instead of a civil violation, and authorize about 700 miles of non-continuous fence, cutting off about a third of the Mexican border.

"I view the House bill as an expression of concern that something has to be done. I'm generally sympathetic to that idea," Ting said.

Carper, meanwhile, has nestled himself out of the line of fire. He has taken a position that puts him in the middle of the congressional delegation with U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a fellow Democrat, covering his left flank and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican, covering his right.

In addition, Carper has sidled up close enough to Ting's proposals to blur the distinctions between them.

Biden, as a member of the Judiciary Committee, already has cast a vote on immigration, aligning himself with a majority of the committee in favor of a bipartisan bill co-sponsored by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat.

The McCain-Kennedy legislation would add border guards for security and create an amnesty program that would offer undocumented immigrants an 11-year path toward citizenship, although applicants would have to pay a fine and back taxes and learn English. The entire Senate has not voted on it yet.

Castle voted for the Sensenbrenner bill, even though he prefers the McCain-Kennedy approach, because he favors better border security against terrorists and criminals and wanted a legislative vehicle to send to the Senate, according to Elizabeth B. Wenk, the congressman's deputy chief of staff.

Carper is for better border protection, although his preferred upgrade is technological, like pilot-less aircraft that he says could detect border crossings and would be more cost effective than a fence.

"It [fence] shouldn't be our first option. I wouldn't take it off the table. It's more akin to our last option than our first," he said.

Carper virtually echoed Ting in his disregard for amnesty, saying, "What kind of message do we send to people who have been waiting for years to come here legally?"

The immigration debate could provide Ting with a measure of credibility as a candidate for his comprehensive grasp of the issue, but there is a question about how much traction it could give him in the campaign.

His position leaves him alone and exposed to the right of the congressional delegation in a state that likes its politics moderate and increasingly trends Democratic, as population-rich New Castle County dominates the voter pool at the expense of the more conservative lower two counties.

Nor is immigration an issue that is likely to drive an election here, even if it is a measure of concern. Among 830,000 Delawareans, only about 5 percent are Latino, with concentrations in places like Wilmington and Georgetown, according to U.S. Census statistics.

"It's not frankly something that people have come up to talk to me about. It's going to be on people's radar screens, but it's not going to be as important as the war in Iraq, health care or the loss of manufacturing jobs," Carper said.

"But it's going to be on people's minds."