Support grows for immigration, but reservations linger

As Washington gears up for more debate, surveys show Americans are torn by competing values.

Gloria Tappan has no doubts when it comes to helping customers decide on stemware or choose just the right card for a special occasion.

But when the gift-shop owner in Helena, Ark., considers the issue of immigration and its impact on the United States, all that certainty converts to mixed emotions.

"I'm not sure how I feel about immigration. I can see the arguments for all sides," says the resident of a Mississippi River town where the Spanish-speaking population has jumped over recent years. "It's not an easy question for the people in Washington or anyone else to answer."

Mrs. Tappan, you speak for a nation.

With the 2000 census showing historically high levels of immigrants as a percentage of the US population, and with job layoffs raising anxieties about the economy, immigration is experiencing one of its periodic ascents in public interest.

Curiosity over President Bush's call for some kind of amnesty or "legalization" for millions of illegal immigrants is fueling the interest. So are cultural influences, such as the rise of Hispanic music stars and the increase in households where English isn't the principal language.

"Immigration is coming back on the agenda," says Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington. Talk of immigrant law reform, some kind of guest-worker program, and even discussion of college tuition assistance and access to driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants are all boosting interest.

"There's a latent public anxiety about the impact all of this has on the country, so it's not surprising that with so many related concerns attracting attention, immigration is going to pop up," says Mr. Camarota, whose center opposes broad immigration liberalization.

Last week, Mexican officials meeting in Washington with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft suggested that a plan revising US immigration policy might not be ironed out in time for an announcement during Mexican President Vicente Fox's state visit next month. But Mr. Powell indicated that a likely outcome is a guest-worker program that could result in legal-resident status for participants. That move, however, would not satisfy pro-immigration forces.

The public response to immigration, meanwhile, is like the proverbial half glass of water. Most Americans are neither stiffly opposed to nor passionately supportive of immigration, but are often torn between what they see as the pluses and minuses of a phenomenon that is inextricably linked to what America is.

Over the past decade, the country's longest time of economic expansion, national surveys have shown a remarkable shift to a positive public view of immigration. A survey by the University of Chicago showed a steep drop in the number of Americans who favored cutting the number of immigrants - from 62 percent in 1994 to 40 percent in 2000. "What's really significant is that opposing immigration shifted from the majority to the minority view," says Tom Smith, the survey's director.

But the survey also reflects another, less positive, view of immigration. In the 2000 survey, a majority - 53 percent - agreed that immigration tends to hurt national unity. And while 73 percent said immigrants contribute new ideas to the country, 71 percent said they also contribute to higher crime rates.

These same trends are picked up by Rice University, which has tracked public-opinion shifts for 20 years in Houston. "We find today the same ambivalence towards immigration that's been true of America from the beginning," says Steve Kleinberg, a Rice sociologist and director of the Houston survey.

Such ambivalence, he says, is a cry for leadership, the sign of a public hungry for discussion and direction from its leaders on the issue. But the CIS's Camarota says, "We don't get the discussion the public wants" on immigration because of the place immigration holds "in America's understanding of itself" and because of a desire to ward off being labeled a bigot. This, he says, "allows political leaders to avoid an intelligent discussion of the issues."

That may be changing. Immigration is likely to hit center stage during the state visit of Mr. Fox. Already, a few members of Congress are gearing up by signaling their opposition to immigration liberalization.

Last week, two Republican representatives, James Sensenbrenner Jr. of Wisconsin and George Gekas of Pennsylvania, said they would fight any effort to ease immigration law that was not preceded by an overhaul of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. And Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, with the support of Colorado's former Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm, has introduced a bill to cap the number of immigrants allowed into the US per year at 300,000 - roughly the number of people who leave the country annually.

Labor organizations, including the AFL-CIO, have been traditional opponents of higher immigration. More recently, as immigrants have become important parts of their membership, they have joined with pro-migrant groups and some church organizations to support pro-immigration reforms.

But what looks to some like battle preparation suggests that the nation might end up with a political tug of war. "My guess is that the positive spin being put on immigration for political reasons will damp the public expression of contrary sentiments for the foreseeable future," says Karl Eschbach, an immigration specialist at the University of Houston.

Behind Bush's push for liberalized immigration rules is a play for the growing segment of Hispanic voters, Mr. Eschbach says. In response, he adds, Democrats aren't about to do anything to alienate a population that has traditionally favored them.

"Both sides are playing for a constituency," he says, "and that doesn't suggest the best scenario for an open and frank discussion."

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