Photo By David Robert Facing reelection, U.S. Sen. John Ensign has taken on war critics and immigrants.

U.S. Senator John Ensign, normally a below-the-radar lawmaker, broke into the news with a splash—three splashes, actually—this week.

The Nevada Republican successfully sponsored an amendment that was tacked onto the immigration bill under consideration in the Senate. The amendment allows state governors to authorize governors to use their national guard annual training periods to patrol the Mexican border.

Ensign also unusccessfully sponsored an amendment to deny social security benefits to illegal aliens who have paid for them.

And Ensign lashed out at war critics in a way he has not previously done, saying they are aiding the U.S. government’s enemy in Iraq.

“Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Ted Kennedy—let me tell you, I say this without reservation—they have hurt our military, they have emboldened the enemy.”

Ensign, who is running for reelection this year, was speaking before the Nevada Republican Convention in Mesquite and did not include Sen. Harry Reid in his criticism because he has a mutual non-aggression pact with the Nevada Democrat.

Ensign described troops in Iraq as fighting for freedom and said that even if people oppose the war, they should lie to the public about their feelings. He quoted comedian Dennis Miller: “I happen to believe in what we’re doing over there. But if I didn’t, I’d lie.”

“They’re fighting for the freedom of speech, they’re fighting for the right to protest, they’re fighting for all those things,” Ensign said. “But when we are at war, especially the leaders in this country need to be very, very careful of what they say and what they do.”

Iraq war veteran Jon Soltz, director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America Political Action Committee, Wednesday demanded an apology from Ensign and at press time he and other veterans announced they would appear at Ensign’s Washington office today to hear the apology.

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Jack Carter said, “The questions against the war are bipartisan. There are people in both parties that are commenting on it and wanting to know what’s going on over there, but Sen. Ensign does not deal in bipartisanship. He deals in total partisanship. And therefore, I’m not surprised at the way that he expresses his views on the war and the people who are opposed to it.”

Ensign also said that the failure of citizens to continue supporting the war was a reflection of an “instant gratification culture” in the U.S. The war is now in its fourth year.

Ensign is the second member of the Nevada congressional delegation to question the patriotism of war critics.

In a letter to the editor of the Lahontan Valley News in April 2005, U.S. Rep. James Gibbons called war critics “the new generation of Jane Fondas—people like Michael Moore” and equated criticism of the war with “deriding” the troops themselves.

Ensign’s immigration amendments aroused fierce, even inflammatory criticism. The Progressive Leadership Alliance sent out a message asking its supporters to contact Ensign and oppose him on immigration matters. It linked Ensign to the White Peoples Party.

“John Ensign is clearly out of touch with all but the most extreme elements of his own political party and a cabal of political extremists, nativists and racists,” the message said. “A CBS poll released May 18, 2006 shows that 77 percent of Americans support a program that would clear the way for illegal immigrants to seek citizenship if they’ve been in the United States for at least five years, pay a fine and back taxes, learn to speak English and have no criminal record. Yet Nevada’s junior senator ignores this overwhelmingly positive number and refuses to support the ‘path to citizenship’ that has the endorsement of President Bush, a bipartisan majority in the Senate, all of Nevada’s employer and employee organizations, a broad spectrum of religious organizations, and on and on.

“The same poll shows that 19 percent of Americans oppose a path to citizenship. These people include Nevada’s White Peoples Party, late night talk-show host and noted anti-immigrant Mark Edwards, and Senator Ensign.”

Ensign’s social security amendment drew criticism from an unexpected source—the right wing Washington Times daily newspaper in the nation’s capital. The newspaper, owned by the Unification Church, editorialized, “Sen. John Ensign offered an amendment to deny illegal aliens Social Security benefits, and it failed by just 50-49, with seven Republicans who had voted to grant guest workers permanent status voting for the Ensign amendment. We’re happy they did so, but the logic of those senators’ votes escapes us (as logic had escaped them).”

The social security amendment also attracted opposition from a group called the New American Opportunity Campaign in Washington. It called taking social security benefits “immoral.”

“Immigration reform legislation is taking a turn for the worse,” one of its mailings said. “The John Ensign (R-NV) amendment number 3985 is designed to prevent lawfully present immigrant workers from claiming Social Security based on earnings credited before they were authorized to work in the United States. This is fundamentally immoral and un-American.”

“Social Security was not intended for people who entered our country illegally,” Ensign said. He did not address whether the money paid into the system by workers denied benefits should be returned to them.

Ensign’s national guard amendment was approved by the senate on an 83 to 10 vote. It was regarded in Washington as a minor measure—the Los Angeles Times called it “largely symbolic”—and there were questions about its provisions.

For instance, while it allows governors to send national guard troops to the border, it was not clear whether the measure would also allow governors to refuse to make such use of the guard. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is a critic of the use of guard troops along the border.

Under the provisions of the amendment, tours of duty are limited to 21 days, and troops would be excluded from “search, seizure, arrest or similar activity.” That leaves patrolling as virtually the only use to which the troops could be put.

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Dennis Myers

Dennis Myers was the news editor of the Reno News & Review. He was a journalist for more than four decades. In 1987-88 he was chief deputy secretary of state of Nevada. He was coauthor of Uniquely...