Illegal Immigration Debate Heats Up Heartland Primary

What started as a rather mundane discussion this past month between the five Republican candidates for Missouri's Ninth District Congressional seat escalated into a full-blown controversy when the debate turned to the issue of illegal immigration. Missouri may be located in America's heartland, but that doesn't mean that voters are any less concerned about illegal immigration and border security. Even a year after the failed attempt by Congress to ramrod its massively unpopular illegal immigration bill upon America, illegal immigration is still a hot topic in Missouri. It also is one of the areas that differentiates the five Republican candidates seeking to replace U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof, (R-Columbia), who left his seat in Congress to run for governor of Missouri.

During the debate on July 15, state Rep. Bob Onder (R-Lake St. Louis) tacitly accused state Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer (R-St. Elizabeth) of supporting amnesty for illegal immigrants. Onder contends that Luetkemeyer supported legislation similar to the immigration package pushed by Congress last year that would have given illegal aliens entry into a guest worker program. In a discussion with Rep. Onder this week, he accused Luetkemeyer of promoting legislation that would allow illegals to participate in guest worker programs. He also said that his opponent's plan would give illegals a special path to citizenship. "Blaine supports both of these types of amnesty," Onder said.

In an interview with the Columbia Tribune, Luetkemeyer said his intention was to:

"[s]upport policies where illegal immigrants are found and documented to inform officials know who they are. They have been here illegally and therefore they have to go through the whole process -- like everybody else does -- of getting back into country," Luetkemeyer said. "Anybody who's trying to misrepresent that is really stretching what's going on. But my intention is ... we got to find them, document them, get them out of the country. If they're people who are trained, who've been successful at this point -- put them at the back of the line and let them go back through the process. And certainly what we need to do is raise the number of people we have coming to this country, maybe change the visa system so we can extend those visas for longer than the period of time that we're getting right now. Those are all options and ways to present this problem."

On the other hand, Onder does not support any form of amnesty and was vice-chair of the Missouri Special Committee on Immigration. Onder sponsored a bill in 2007 that would have mandated State Highway Patrol training on federal immigration law. That legislation passed the House but not the Missouri Senate, and Onder led the House in passing his immigration bill that is the second strongest in the nation.

It was initially the immigration debate that turned this Missouri race into a dogfight for this central Missouri U.S. House seat. The 25-county district stretches from northeast Missouri to the Interstate 70 corridor between St. Charles and Columbia. The district includes Columbia, Hannibal, Kirksville, Hermann, Franklin County, and a part of the Lake of the Ozarks.

In response to the amnesty accusations, Luetkemeyer accused Onder of conducting push polls, although the Onder campaign has denied it. Then this week, according to the Politics Blog, Onder's campaign sent out a release accusing Luetkemeyer of push-polling -- the exact event that essentially started the pair's air war. Luetkemeyer's spokesman said such a charge is "not accurate." This Republican primary race is heating up with both sides trading charges of influence peddling.

Dr. Bob Onder received good news this month when the conservative Club for Growth announced a major ad buy in MO-09, that is running for a minimum of 10 days, in support of the representative. The group has historically poured cash into competitive GOP primary campaigns, often to sideline Republicans whom it views as too moderate. This was a big break for Onder. The video they've been airing against Rep. Luetkemeyer may be viewed here.

In response, Luetkemeyer fired back with his own TV ad chastising Onder and his "East Coast supporters" for their "false attack ads."

The war of words continues in this bellwether state as each of these prominent candidates pushes his conservative credentials in the final days of the primary campaign. And, in an interesting twist for this Midwestern state, it was the immigration debate and border security that turned the debate into a battle.

Missouri's primary election is scheduled for August 5.