For illegals, a spreading backlash

Counties, states hope to needle Bush into tightening US border.

This oasis of irrigated farm country in the high desert is a long way from the US-Mexico border, and even farther from the nation's capital, but it represents America's new battleground on immigration policy.

Here county commissioner Robert Vasquez is trying to do what he says Washington won't: crack down on illegal immigration. He recently sued several local employers in a novel bid to use federal anticorruption law to prevent hiring illegals.

Mr. Vasquez's controversial crusade is part of a larger pattern. As the border continues to be punctured by illicit crossings, and as immigrants spread to places unaccustomed to or unprepared for the influx, a local backlash is building.

The moves, ranging from police arrests in New Hampshire to community activism in Tennessee, point to a sharp political divide. At the very least, they signal a rift among conservatives among conservatives that may be growing more pronounced, as President Bush seeks an accommodative policy but faces resistance from some other Republicans such as Vasquez.

But the attempted crackdowns also reveal a larger rift - one that separates much of Main Street America from the nation's policymaking elite. At a time when Congress is considering guest-worker programs to legalize more undocumented workers, polls show most Americans want to see illegal immigration curbed.

Local lawsuits and policies will hardly achieve that goal by themselves, but if successful they could create pressure for stronger federal action.

"The public agrees on certain things, and one of these is the distinction between legal and illegal immigration," says Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies. But "in the end it's mostly within Washington's purview."

Indeed, Vasquez is seeking to take his fight to the nation's capital. He hopes to win a seat in Congress in 2006 and push for stricter immigration policies alongside Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado.

But first he faces a hearts-and-minds battle here in Canyon County as he presses his lawsuits along with two fellow commissioners.

Caldwell, the community where Vasquez's office sits in the county courthouse, is oriented around a railroad track and the Farm City Agribusiness Park. Where some streets sport freshly painted bungalows and lush lawns, others are defined by trailer homes that have seen better decades. What binds the 26,000 residents together, however, is a tradition of hard work in the nearby fields, shops, and food-processing plants.

Vasquez, whose grandfather came from Mexico, complains of an "unarmed invasion" that is fast transforming American towns like this one. "Why," he asks, "should I have to 'Press 1 for English?' "

But if cultural change is a key backdrop of the debate, both sides frame their views largely around economic arguments.

On that score, many here support the effort to clamp down on illegal laborers.

"They say these are jobs that no one else will take," says Tim Smallwood, an Idaho fruit and vegetable inspector, as he takes a lunch break in Caldwell. But if employers were denied that pool of cheap labor, overall wages would go up he says.

Lori Morrison, who manages a night shift at Jack-in-the-Box to help support her family, shares the worry about wages. And she adds another concern: the social-service burden on government. "Taxes have gone up," she says. "They're killing us."

But others see the dollars and cents differently. They say immigrants have traditionally filled the lowest rung, those often unwanted jobs, as they climb toward better lives.

"We understand that there's a problem with illegal immigration," says Keith Esplin, executive director of Potato Growers of Idaho. But he says there's a shortage of workers willing to do strenuous jobs in agriculture, construction, and landscaping.

He calls for expanded guest-worker program, a move supported by Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho among others. And Mr. Esplin says it's unfair to place the onus on employers as gatekeepers: "An employer has no way of knowing when he gets a document from a worker whether it's false or real."

In the long run, some say the Real ID Act, passed by Congress this spring to ensure authenticity of driver's licenses, could help employers hire only legal residents.

In the short run, the fact is that relatively few employers are prosecuted for hiring illegal workers.

To some experts, current policies are simply out of step with labor-market reality.

"There is no legal channel for [millions of undocumented workers] to be here, yet they need to be here," says Christina DeConcini, director of policy at the National Immigration Forum in Washington. "We need their labor to do these jobs."

Citing the positions of key leaders in both parties, she says the political climate is shifting, nationally, toward this recognition.

But there's still plenty of fuel for local backlashes like the one Vasquez leads.

A new CBS poll finds that two-thirds of Americans oppose guest-worker permits for those who are now here illegally. And in a June Gallup survey, 70 percent said the US shouldn't make it easier for illegal immigrants to become citizens.

Those opinions have hardened into action in some states and localities:

• In New Hampshire, police arrested alleged illegal immigrants using a state law on "criminal trespass." A judge is expected to rule soon on a bid to dismiss the charges.

• In Arizona, voters approved a November ballot measure denying some public benefits to illegal immigrants. This week a federal appeals court upheld the law.

• In 18 states from California to Minnesota and Tennessee, groups have sprung up with affiliations to the Minuteman Project, which coordinated a highly publicized volunteer effort earlier this year to patrol Arizona's border with Mexico.

Illegal immigrants

Illegal immigrants as a percentage of all foreign-born residents. Mountain states of the West rank among the hightest. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized the percentage of illegal immigrants.]

Very highest (48% to 54%)

Arizona
Colorado
Idaho
North Carolina
Utah

Source: Pew Hispanic Center

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