Every day they come. From Mexico and Nicaragua. From China and India. From the Middle East and Africa. Illegal immigrants. Hundreds enter the United States daily. Sometimes thousands.
There are at least 8 million illegal aliens living in America today - and their numbers are growing by at least 400,000 a year. Maybe 500,000. No one knows for sure.
The growing number of foreigners who violate American immigration laws, sometimes with the aid of smugglers, has begun to rattle politicians and roil public opinion. Illegal residents are so plentiful they are hard to miss in states like California, Texas, Arizona, and more recently Virginia and Maryland.
In Northern Virginia, the recent rise of criminal gangs, populated by immigrants smuggled from Central America, has sent a wave of concern through middle-class suburbs. In Arizona, anger over use of costly public services by illegal aliens has led to a statewide vote next week on Proposition 200, which would require local governments to verify the immigration status of applicants.
George W. Bush and John Kerry came face to face with the mounting worries over immigration during their final presidential debate. Moderator Bob Schieffer of CBS News noted that thousands "cross our borders illegally every day," and that prior to the debate he "got more e-mail" on immigration than any other issue.
Mr. Schieffer noted that illegal immigration is a security issue (terrorists have entered the country unlawfully in the past). It's an economic issue (a report to be issued this week will show that immigrants are taking jobs away from US citizens). It's a human rights issue (does the world's richest nation have an obligation to help people from poorer nations by opening its doors wider?).
Public opinion on this issue diverges from the positions of both President Bush and Senator Kerry. Neither presidential candidate calls for a slowdown on legal immigration. Yet a Gallup poll earlier this year found that 49 percent of Americans prefer a decrease in legal immigration, while only 8 percent want an increase of the kind supported by Mr. Bush.
It is illegal immigrants, however, who raise the most concern among many voters, as well as security experts. The 9/11 commission, in its 567-page report on the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, noted that in an age of terrorism, "the challenge for national security is to prevent the very few people who may pose overwhelming risks from entering ... the United States undetected." Until recently, border control "was not seen as a national security matter," the commission said.
Senator Kerry claims "the borders are more leak[y] today than they were before 9/11. The fact is, we haven't done what we need to do to toughen up our borders. And I will." At the same time, Kerry promises to help illegal aliens who are already here. He vows within 100 days of taking office to rush through legislation that would allow millions of people who have already entered the US illegally to move toward legal status - a move that President Bush quickly criticized as "amnesty."
The president denies that his own plan for undocumented workers is amnesty, but critics say it could lead to the same result. Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, says of Bush and Kerry: "As far as the parts of their immigration plans that are most often discussed, there is no difference. They both favor amnesty for illegal immigration. Bush says his is not, but that is just 'spin.' Kerry would give illegal immigrants green cards right away, while Bush's is a two-step, dragged out, but it is still an amnesty."
The US has a long history of immigration, symbolized by the Statue of Liberty. Over the past two centuries, America accepted tens of millions of immigrants from around the world. As a rule, the US has been the most generous in the world toward immigrants. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most newcomers arrived from European nations such as Ireland, Britain, Italy, Germany, Poland, and the Scandinavian nations. In the 1960s, the laws changed to facilitate widespread legal migration from Latin America and Asia.
The greatest numbers today come from Mexico. Even with these higher quotas for Latin Americans, however, the pressure has grown substantially on the US southern border in the past 20 years.
While both major party candidates support somewhat similar immigration policies, advocates on this issue see important differences. The American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA), which supports greater immigration, comes down strongly in favor of the Kerry positions. Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the AILA, complains that while Bush talks about a wide-ranging temporary worker program for illegal immigrants, no legislative proposals have been put forth during his nearly four years in office.
Nor has Bush worked to support either the Dream Act or the AgJobs Act, which the lawyers association favors, she says. The Dream Act, spearheaded by Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah, would aid students who are illegal immigrants and have graduated from US high schools. It would give them the right to compete with American students on an equal basis for slots at state colleges and universities. They would also qualify for lower, in-state tuition under the Hatch bill.
The AgJobs bill would provide a quick and easy avenue for illegal immigrants who work in agriculture to gain legal status. Once they can show that they have performed at least 100 days of agricultural work during a recent 12-month period, they would gain all the rights of a permanent lawful resident.
Kerry has indicated he would "immediately sign" both of these bills if he became president. Further, the AILA, in a recent statement, characterized the Bush White House as "restrictionist" and "anti-immigrant" in its approach to immigration provisions in the intelligence reform bills now moving through Congress.
Dan Stein, executive director of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, says that while both major candidates have supported forms of amnesty for illegal immigrants, there are important differences. One is the difference between the Republican and Democratic parties. And this directly affects the candidates.
He says: "The Republican voter base is adamantly opposed to amnesty. They are not interested in rewarding cheaters, or paying benefits to illegals for social services. Of course, the money [business] wing of the party has a very different view."
The Democrats, meanwhile, are strongly influenced by various ethnic groups, and find it easier to support issues like amnesty, Mr. Stein observes. Even so, Stein noted approvingly that Kerry called for stronger defense of America's borders. And Kerry is the first Democratic candidate since Jimmy Carter to speak out in favor of sanctions (fines and other penalties) against US employers who hire illegal aliens. A law sharply penalizing firms for hiring undocumented workers was passed in 1986, but is seldom enforced.
Analysts say that the broad similarities between Bush and Kerry on immigration leave some voters without an easy choice on the issue, particularly if they favor lower levels of immigration and a get-tough approach to border enforcement. While Ms. Butterfield of the lawyers association asserts that Kerry is closer to a "pro-immigration" candidate, Mr. Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies says that a Bush speech in January set forth an historic immigration agenda.
At that time, the president outlined a so-called "guest worker" program that Krikorian says would open the floodgates to foreign workers. As he wrote in the National Review: "Taking [Bush] at his word would suggest a return to 19th-century unlimited immigration, with the American labor market open to the world's other 6 billion people. And ... this seems to be the objective." He added that this "would inevitably drive down wages and benefits for Americans, creating ever more 'jobs American's won't do.' The White House seems to view immigration as similar to trade, seeking a market-driven system that allows free movement of people."
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