Watch CBSN Live

Sensenbrenner: Man In The Middle

As America comes to a crossroads over illegal immigration - meet the man in the middle: Wisconsin Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner.

The home district of the GOP lawmaker – chairman of the House Judiciary Committee – is within driving distance of Canada and some 1,300 miles from the Mexican border.

Even in Elm Grove, Wis., says Sensenbrenner, "immigration and controlling our borders is the top issue of concern to Americans, even more than the war."

"It's a national security issue and it's an economic security issue," says Sensenbrenner, in an interview with CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts.

He says immigration reform is the toughest issue of his nearly 30-year-old career – and from city streets to the suburbs - few would disagree.

Sensenbrenner is the man whose actions are credited with sparking weeks of massive rallies by illegal immigrants and their supporters – protests against the Sensenbrenner-proposed House bill which would make illegal aliens – and anyone who knowingly helped them to stay here – felons.

"There are a lot of people who've called me names for stepping up to the plate, but if it isn't done, I think all of America suffers," says Sensenbrenner. "I am neither a bigot or an extremist."

What has been the impact of the protests against the legislation?

"The feedback that I've gotten from constituents and polling data that I've seen," he says, "indicate that the protests have backfired… Waving all those Mexican flags – I think that really got under people's skin."

Rally organizers argue instead that Sensenbrenner awoke "a sleeping giant" of activism by illegal immigrants and their allies.

Sensenbrenner concedes that most of the 11 million illegals already here will stay here. His plan, he says, is to secure the border and crack down on employers first.

"I imagine that the nation will have to figure out a way to absorb many of the 11 million," says Sensenbrenner, adding that it's not his goal to deport every last one – even if it were possible.

What does he say in response to the demonstrators who say 'I work hard, my family works hard, allow us to stay, we're not criminals'?

"They do work hard," says Sensenbrenner, "but they are criminals."

Asked by CBS News correspondent Byron Pitts about the argument put forth by business owners, who say they can't find Americans to cut lettuce and grass and do many other jobs, Sensenbrenner has an answer.

"American citizens will do anything," he says, "if you pay them enough."