Sen. John Ensign said he supports President Bush's new immigration plan partly because Nevada's service-based economy would collapse without the cheaper, immigrant work force.
"We have somewhere between 9 million and 13 million illegal or undocumented workers - however you want to describe them - in the United States," Ensign, R-Nev., said during one a series of speeches this week at Nevada high schools.
"Without them, our economy collapses, especially the economy of the state of Nevada. We've got to have those people. A lot of them are doing jobs Americans flat out won't do," he said.
On a variety of other topics, Ensign said he:
- Favors ending all limits on campaign contributions as long as the giving is reported and the contributor identified.
- Supports a federal ban on gay marriages, but doubts it will pass Congress this year.
- Opposes legalization of marijuana because it is a "gateway drug" and could ultimately lead to the legalization of heroin.
- Encourages more young people to register to vote partly to help persuade "weak-kneed" politicians to stand up to the senior citizen lobby and change the Social Security system.
- Opposes the energy bill before the Senate because it is "laden with special interests."
Answering more than a dozen questions from about 100 students at Reed High School in Sparks on Monday, Ensign said Bush's proposed "guest worker" program for immigrants would solve many illegal immigration problems and benefit both the U.S. and Mexican economies.
Bush's proposal would allow illegal immigrants now in the country - as well as someone abroad - to apply for the right to work legally in the country for a three-year term that could be renewed. The employer would have to show no Americans wanted the job and the worker must return to his or her home country at the end of the term.
"It recognizes in reality we really can't close our border," Ensign said.
"It's too big. It's too long. We can't keep them out. It is impossible to do. We tried. We put a ton of money into it and we can't do it," he said.
Ensign doesn't expect the president's plan will pass Congress in this, an election year. But he said "eventually something like that will be the answer or will be part of it."
On campaign reform, Ensign said he initially backed stricter limits on contributions.
But "with money and politics, people figure out ways around the law," he said.
"What we should do is take any limits off giving, but make everything reportable. If you want to give $1 million to somebody, you give $1 million and they have to report it," he said.
He takes exception to critics who say "there is too much money in politics."
U.S. beer companies spend more on advertising in a year than all the federal, state and local political races combined, Ensign said.
"What is more important, trying to persuade people on what beer they drink or trying to persuade people on who to elect to office?" he asked students at Reed High.
Ensign said he recognizes the individual civil rights of gays but would support a constitutional amendment to define marriage as only between a man and a woman.
If two men can be married or two women, then "why not two men and one woman?" Ensign asked.
"Or three and one? ... What's the difference if it is between two women and a man if they are all consenting adults? Where do you stop the definition?"
He predicted such a ban won't pass because of divisions over the best way to outlaw the practice.
Legalizing marijuana "would be a huge mistake," Ensign said. He said alcohol abuse may carry a higher cost to society in the form of such things as drunken driving and spousal abuse.
But he said there is a difference because it's "socially acceptable in America to drink."
Also, "there's no question marijuana is a gateway drug" that leads to other drugs, Ensign said.
"With marijuana, if you make it legal, you make heroin legal. Why stop at marijuana? Other countries like Denmark and places like that have gone the experimental route. A few countries in Europe have done that. It has not been successful. It has been really bad," he said.
Ensign said one of the best reasons for young people to vote is to help bring about changes in the Social Security system, which won't survive in its current form to help them by the time they retire.
Without major reforms to turn it into more of a retirement system, the only options are to raise taxes to pay for the growing population of retirees or reduce benefits, he said.
"If you raise taxes, you get thrown out of office... If you cut benefits, senior citizens will definitely throw you out of office," Ensign said.
"Politicians are too weak-kneed. They don't have the backbone to stand up to senior citizens and say we are going to change. ... We need you to vote. It's important for you to get involved."