NASHVILLE - With an immigration overhaul bill expected to hit the U.S. Senate floor as early as June 10, groups on both sides of the debate are amping up the pressure on Tennessee's two Republican senators.
And that has Sens. Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander tiptoeing carefully around whether they will support the specific bill crafted by a bipartisan Senate group dubbed the "Gang of Eight."
Among other things, the bill creates a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S., while toughening border enforcement and screening of hiring practices. Other provisions address allowing more high- and low-skilled workers to come here legally to work.
On Friday in Nashville, Corker told reporters he begins "with knowing that where we are today as a nation is not tenable."
Corker said he hopes for a solution but is concerned about the details of reform. Some critics fear the bill won't solve illegal immigration any more than a 1986 law did, resulting in a "third wave" of amnesty "down the road," Corker said.
"Certainly people have their antennae up about previous failures," Corker said. "But I do think there's a much greater desire in the [Senate], and I'm certainly one of those people who wants to see some sort of productive outcome, and that's how we begin this debate."
Alexander, appearing on a Nashville conservative talk radio show last week, said he is "carefully reviewing" the measure that passed out of the Judiciary Committee last month and will examine amendments closely.
"Our borders are not secure," said Alexander, who faces re-election next year.
"Millions illegally here have de facto amnesty. At the same time, we are excluding scientists and workers who could help grow our economy."
Congress and the president are responsible for creating and enforcing rules for legal immigration, he added.
"I will be voting to secure our borders, end de facto amnesty and to establish an immigration system that respects the rule of law," he said.
State-based tea party groups and several state legislators last week fired off an open letter urging the senators to reject the bill.
The bill "legalizes millions of illegal immigrants immediately and before securing the border, thus guaranteeing that illegal immigration will continue," the letter stated.
The groups fear a "devastating" impact on the job market and greater financial burdens on "honest, tax-paying Americans for generations to come" with impacts on already "unsustainable spending."
Among the 44 groups or individuals signing the letter were Chattanooga Tea Party President Mark West and state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, who is running in the 4th Congressional District GOP primary.
Carr said the bill isn't needed.
"It is clear that we already have plenty of laws on the books that could be used to secure the border, prevent illegal aliens from taking jobs from law-abiding citizens and to keep those who are illegally in our country from getting 'entitlement' money in the form of welfare, housing, food stamps and more," he said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Numbers- USA, a Virginia-based group that advocates low immigration levels, is attacking the bill in radio ads.
One spot says, "20 million of our friends, family and neighbors can't find work. ... So why is Congress talking about giving 33 million new work permits to foreign job seekers?"
Backing the legislation is the Evangelical Immigration Table, a coalition that includes the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, World Relief and several Tennessee churches.
Last week the group announced it is launching a radio campaign. And on Friday the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights coalition held a statewide "call-in" day urging Corker and Alexander to back the bill.
In the Evangelical Immigration Table ad, Sandy Wilson, senior minister of Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, said "the lives of 11 million of our neighbors hang in the balance."
"Christ calls his followers to compassion and justice, so please join a growing movement of Christians asking our political leaders for immigration solutions rooted in biblical values."
Wilson said the group believes immigration reform "should reflect each person's God-given dignity, respect the rule of law, protect family unity, guarantee secure borders, ensure fairness to taxpayers and establish a path toward citizenship."
"Our Tennessee elected officials need your prayer and to hear your voice," he continues in the ad.
On Sunday, Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that the immigration bill will go to the Senate floor June 10.
"I predict it will pass the Senate by July 4," Schumer said.
He said he hopes the bill will get up to 70 votes, "which means a lot of Republicans."
But speaking on CNN's "State of the Union," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said, "That Senate bill is not going to move in the House."
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfree press.com or 615-255-0550.