Illegal immigration on the stump

Clinton's mixed answer on driver's licenses for illegal aliens helps focus the 2008 election on solutions.

Hurrah for elections. They often clarify the preferred action on an issue. Take the question of what to do with millions of illegal aliens in the US. Last spring, Congress was gridlocked over it. Now the question is on the campaign stump for the 2008 election. Just ask Hillary Clinton.

During last week's debate among Democratic presidential candidates, she tried to walk on both sides of a question over whether people who violate immigration law should be given a driver's license. That idea, proposed by New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, is the latest move that would, in effect, partially legalize illegal residents – a prospect that has been at the heart of a debate in Congress.

Her Democratic opponents went after Senator Clinton's ambiguous answer, but the larger point was that illegal immigration has become a wedge issue within and between the two major parties, both nationally and in many local races. That's a healthy debate which can only help voters choose the best candidates for Congress and the White House who will act firmly on illegal immigration.

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Democrats, especially, have learned that immigration is a hot-button issue after they nearly lost an Oct. 5 special congressional race in Massachusetts. Their own polling of independent voters shows that illegal immigration outweighs concerns over healthcare and Iraq.

Last spring, US lawmakers balked at measures to grant a path to citizenship for illegals. Last month, the Senate also rejected the proposed "Dream Act," which would have provided aid for a college education to children who entered the US illegally with their parents. Such failed attempts highlight the question of whether to give any government benefits and privileges to illegal aliens.

Doing so may often seem wise and compassionate, as in providing emergency healthcare. Such benefits, while they create momentum toward legalization, are different from privileges, such as licenses.

Mexican consulates around the US have provided an ID card to citizens in the US illegally. Many banks and other institutions now honor the cards, hoping to make money off the millions of Mexicans who live outside American law.

Another percolating campaign issue is whether local and state law-enforcement officials should alert US immigration officials when they arrest someone and find that his or her legal status is unclear. GOP contender Rudolph Giuliani has taken heat from party rivals for his policy as then-mayor of New York to not let city officials turn in suspected illegal aliens.

The Spitzer plan to grant driver's licenses to illegals drew not only sharp criticism, but a warning from the US Homeland Security chief. Such a step would jeopardize recent attempts to secure the borders, establish a national ID, arrest illegal workers, and capture terrorists. Spitzer partially backed down, then shelved the idea for a year.

Most Americans want secure borders first, an aggressive crackdown on employers of illegal workers, and more help in coping with the demands of illegal aliens on government services. Such issues are related to their concerns over national and economic security, as well as the corrosive effects of massive lawbreaking by illegal aliens.

Candidates with solutions to those concerns can win.

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