What makes an American and who guards the entryways to the nation are developing into hot issues for key border states in this fall's elections.
The controversy over bilingual education is one aspect of this new trend in immigration politics. Pro-immigrant groups remain roiled over California's passage of Proposition 227, which has outlawed most bilingual teaching in the state.
Control of the border is another local problem with national implications. A US House-passed initiative that would allow use of regular military troops to stem the flow of drugs and illegal immigrants has ignited strong protests from border-state politicians, as well as Mexico.
These trends are the background to President Clinton's unprecedented statement on Saturday in favor of continued high levels of immigration.
In a commencement speech at Portland State University in Oregon, Mr. Clinton said he understood many Americans feel threatened by a tide of immigrants from Latin America and Asia. He said it is important that immigrants embrace the culture of their new land.
But in blunt language he insisted that it is the duty of United States' citizens to welcome newcomers from abroad. "Immigrants are good for America," he said. "They are revitalizing our cities. They are building our new economy ... They are renewing our most basic values."
The current influx of immigration into the US is approaching 1 million people a year. It represents the largest and most diverse such influx this century.
It has had a particular impact on California - Clinton noted that in five years, the nation's largest state will have no majority race.
But California, as it often does, is serving as a bellwether for the nation. If current trends continue, in a little more than 50 years there will be no majority race in the United States itself.
In California, language has emerged as the most emotion-charged immigration issue of the moment. Prop. 227, besides outlawing bilingual ed, mandates a one-year English immersion program to teach young immigrants the language. At least one lawsuit has been filed to block the proposition's implementation.
White House aides denied that Clinton's speech was a specific response to Prop. 227. It had been under consideration as a subject for months, they said.
The president's reference to language was finely balanced, a classic Clintonian attempt to see the point on both sides. He said it's "important for children to retain their native language." But he added that they must learn English, "the dominant language of this country's commerce and citizenship in the future," if they are to be assimilated.
Militarization of border
The militarization of the border could be the next big immigration issue. A little-noticed provision in the House's version of the defense authorization bill authorizes the US military to reinforce civilian authorities to stop entry of drug traffickers and illegal aliens across the border.
The measure, authored by Rep. James Traficant (D) of Ohio, is not matched in the Senate version of the bill. It would merely authorize the Pentagon to position troops along the border if asked to do so by civilian officials.
But the US has a strong tradition of keeping its military out of police activities, and the mere suggestion of Marines holding the fort along the Rio Grande has sparked strong protests from some border politicians.
Arizona Gov. Jane Hull, for instance, said in a letter to Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona that the prospect of armed men in the state's towns "creates a terrifying image that threatens our very nature as a peaceful nation."
Nor has the US Border Patrol embraced the proposal with open arms. "Our position has always been to use troops for support purposes only, for maintenance and road building and electronics repair," says Joe Garza, chief of the McAllen sector of the US Border Patrol.
The Pentagon itself is not necessarily wild about the idea, as it would involve an additional mission and a new way of thinking for troops. "The military is not trained to patrol the border, they're trained to kill," notes retired Sen. Alan Simpson from Wyoming, who was active on immigration issues during his tenure in office.
Ironically, the proposal comes at a time when Arizona and its bordering Mexican state of Sonora have taken to heart the potential created by the North American Free Trade Agreement. They have developed a strategy to merge their economies into a single, borderless economic region.
Mexican and Arizona officials last weekend unveiled a six-point plan to bring the two states closer together in such areas as infrastructure development, tourism, and business investment.
Area officials are concerned that the presence of US military along the border to stem the tide of drug trafficking and illegal immigrants could unravel years of work that have gone into bringing the two sides closer together.
Arizona shares a 400-mile-long border with Mexico, longer than any other state's except Texas. The Sonora-Arizona plan to develop a seamless border region has been held up as a model globally for border cities and nations to emulate.
In Nogales, Ariz., the state's largest border city, Mexicans who cross over legally to shop on the American side account for between 65 percent and 70 percent of the city's sales tax revenue.
Bring on the troops
But not all Arizona officials are opposed to the presence of troops. Nogales Mayor Cesar Rios supports bringing the military to the border region as "the only solution right now" to stem the flow of illegal drugs.
Tensions along the Arizona-Mexico border at Nogales, a city of about 20,000 residents, escalated two weeks ago when a US Border Patrol agent was ambushed by a group of gun-wielding men. The agent was killed, and the alleged gunman was captured in Mexico.
Mr. Rios, who was born in Mexico, says the slaying of the agent is "one too many." He supports bringing military personnel to the border, so long as they do not have a presence in the city's downtown area, which backs up to the border and neighboring Nogales, Mexico.
If troops were to appear in the downtown area, he says, it would have an intimidating effect upon commerce. Rios supports having Border Patrol agents deployed to the border's front line, rather than 500 to 600 yards away as is the current practice.
Agents, he notes, would then be much busier capturing illegal immigrants and would be unable to "count their statistics and send them to Washington. But what's the difference? They would be doing their job."
* William H. Carlile contributed to this report from Phoenix.