When the US House of Representatives announced its latest round of hearings on illegal immigration, taking place across the country this month, many critics saw them as simply political theater – a way to appeal to the GOP's conservative base in an election year.
But the fact that so many citizens, on both sides of the issue, have shown up in large numbers is proof that the issue is no longer confined to Texas' Rio Grande Valley or California's San Joaquin Valley.
Illegal immigration has become a suburban debate, a Northern debate, and a rural debate. And while it has long been a matter of concern to US citizens, it has recently boiled over with an intensity not seen in decades, if ever.
Why is that happening now? One reason is the rise in the number of illegal immigrants. In the mid-1980s, there were about 3 million; today, an estimated 12 million. The number is increasing by about a half million per year.
That rise, in turn, is straining the resources of many local governments. Even communities that have traditionally hosted large numbers of illegal immigrants have felt the impact. Houston, where one of the 21 House hearings was held, has 400,000 illegal immigrants, by some estimates.
The number of children enrolled in English as a Second Language classes here gives some indication of the rise in illegal immigration and the resulting demands on funds. In 1994, 12.3 percent of students and 7.8 percent of teachers were involved in ESL in the Houston area. Today, 17 percent of students and 9.5 percent of teachers are involved in it.
In addition, the Harris County Hospital District saw a 52.8 percent increase of undocumented outpatients between 2002 and 2005, representing a 96 percent increase in cost for services rendered.
"Local communities spend tens of millions of dollars a year on illegal immigrants," says Robert Eckels, the Harris County chief executive who was one of the witnesses at the hearing. "The public is growing frustrated with it."
That frustration is passed on to local officials, who in turn look to their state lawmakers for help. As of the end of July, 69 bills dealing with illegal immigration have been enacted by states this year – a pace that exceeds that of 2005. Most of the legislation deals with issues such as education, employment, and public benefits.
"The impact on healthcare, public schools, and criminal justice is only going to increase. Those concerns stem directly from the numbers," says Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. "It doesn't matter if there are 10 uninsured illegal aliens in your town. It matters if there are 10,000."
Other experts say too much is being made of the costs. "There is no question that there are significant costs. But these newcomers are also spending money in the community, creating demand for new jobs, establishing new businesses, and paying taxes locally," says Andrew Schoenholtz, deputy director of Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of International Migration in Washington.
Ultimately, he says the real question should be: Does the country need these workers? "If the answer is yes, we should simply make the decision that the costs associated with that are acceptable."
National security is another factor putting illegal immigration back in the spotlight, experts say. But since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, much of the immigration debate has focused on securing the borders – even though all 19 hijackers involved in the attacks flew into the country on legal visas.
Of course, politics is a factor behind the recent focus on immigration, many experts say.
"It's mainly because of a strategic choice made by the Republican Congressional leadership to make immigration their party's wedge issue du jour for this election year," writes Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California at San Diego, in an e-mail interview. "Exploiting anti-immigration hostility is ... an effective and efficient way to mobilize their base."
Some experts are taking a longer view. "It's clear that our current approach to the problem has failed, and we need to change it. But do we ramp up and do more of what we've been doing, or do we change direction in a fundamental way?" says Daniel Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington. "We argue, as Bush has, that the country needs to change direction in a fundamental way and create a temporary-worker program."
The Senate bill, backed by President Bush, calls for tightened border security, a temporary-worker program, and a path to citizenship for some of the illegal immigrants already in the country. It is being opposed by House Republicans who are trying to push their own version of a bill that would focus almost exclusively on tougher border enforcement.
In the end, however, other voices beyond politicians may make a difference.
"For the first time, we are seeing undocumented immigrants participating in the debate. That's a big political change," says Dr. Schoenholtz. "We may be at a new juncture in terms of the politics of this issue, but it's too early to tell."