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Fear and Loathing on the Immigration Trail

Author: Robert McMahon, Editor
November 1, 2007

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Some expected the death of the comprehensive immigration-reform package in June to sideline the issue until the next round of federal elections. But concern over illegal immigration has only intensified. It has provoked fierce debates coast to coast, in Congress, and among presidential contenders from both major parties. The New York state governor’s plan to issue drivers licenses to illegal immigrants is the latest flash point (NYT), prompting divisions even among Democrats who are generally united on plans to reform the country’s immigration system. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) was attacked by her rivals in an October 30 debate for equivocating when she said the licensing plan made sense but stressed she “did not say that it should be done.”

Democratic candidates are confronting immigration in Iowa, site of the crucial January 3 party caucuses. In a balancing act likely to play out across the country, they are trying to attract a growing number of Hispanic voters (NYT) while not offending long-standing residents worried about the immigrant influx. The sensitivity of the issue (Politico) is apparent in Washington, where eight Senate Democrats in late October helped defeat the DREAM Act—legislation that would have granted legal residency for students whose parents came to the United States illegally. In yet another measure of voter angst, a special election for a congressional seat in a heavily Democratic Massachusetts district in October saw the near defeat of Democrat Niki Tsongas. The closeness of the race, reports the Washington Post, was widely seen as a protest on illegal immigration issues.

Republicans have been hammering each other as well over immigration policy. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) may have suffered a mortal blow to his candidacy for the GOP nomination because of his support for the comprehensive immigration-reform measure, a feature of which was a path to citizenship for the estimated twelve million illegal immigrants in the country. The two remaining frontrunners—Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney—have sparred over the issue. At the same time they have fended off criticism from another candidate, anti-illegal immigration avatar Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO), for offering “sanctuaries” to illegal immigrants while they ran New York City and Massachusetts, respectively. This tough talk comes despite concerns raised by Michael J. Gerson, CFR senior fellow and former aide to President Bush, that the party is hurting its long-term viability by antagonizing Hispanics.

The response of nearly all candidates when confronted with illegal immigration issues is a rush to the border, with pledges to bolster controls on the U.S.-Mexico frontier. The Bush administration has been moving to press ahead with border fencing (Capitol Media Services) and other tough measures, despite a range of obstacles. Outside of plugging the border, there are calls to do more to bring illegal residents out of the shadows as well as set long-term goals that acknowledge the labor needs of U.S. agriculture and other businesses. Heritage Foundation security expert James Carafano in an Online Debate applauds efforts like the REAL ID Act, which sets national standards for identification in matters like licensing drivers.

Gordon H. Hanson, a professor of economics at the University of California, San Diego, argues in a Council Special Report that immigration policy—when it is addressed again in Congress—should be flexible to adapt to labor needs. He suggests, for example, a new visa program that would allow guest workers to move between jobs. Added immigration expert Marc R. Rosenblum in another Online Debate earlier this year: “Employers and families will continue to look for ways to game the system as long as the system fails to provide needed visas.” But absent federal action, immigration anxieties will continue to play out in communities across America, one day returning to the new president’s doorstep.

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