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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.