In an election year, the prospects of straight talk by the presidential candidates on immigration reform are slim. The issue is too complex and highly contentious.
The public would like to see the problem of illegal immigrants tackled by Washington. But most Americans oppose shortcuts to citizenship for the 12 million or more "undocumented" immigrants. Democratic Sens. Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton are competing for the Hispanic vote. They aren't talking tough about deporting illegal workers and their families, most of whom are Hispanic. After all, friends and family of illegal Latinos often have the vote.
On the Republican side, the candidates tend to talk sternly about repatriating illegal immigrants. Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona has the awkward history of having cosponsored a bill with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts last year that would have given illegal aliens a route, involving penalties, fines, and fees, to legal status and citizenship.
Anyone saying that proposal is amnesty is a "liar," Senator McCain has said. But every program in the world that has allowed illegal immigrants to stay has been called an "amnesty," notes Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington. He proposes shrinking the number of illegal immigrants gradually through enforcement of the laws.
"To get the nomination, McCain has thrown straight talk off the bus," charges Mr. Krikorian.
Another immigration expert, Joseph Chamie, research director at the Center for Migration Studies in New York, argues contrariwise that legalization is the "only viable long-term option" for dealing with illegal immigrants.
Mr. Chamie longs for "an honest dialogue" by politicians with the public on immigration. That, he says, is unlikely before the election next fall.
"Yes, legalization is an amnesty, in effect," he says. "Yes, it is a reward to those who entered the United States illegally. Yes, illegal immigration does – for some people – depress wages. Yes, it is a matter of national security."
So far, though, "lawmakers are saying one thing and doing another," Chamie says. "I can understand why people are frustrated, angry."
As the presidential campaign moves on, illegal immigration will heat up. Democratic and Republican presidential candidates will use the issue to seek votes.
Chamie estimates that as many as 48 million mostly Hispanic people living in the United States, about one-fifth of the population, are not eager to see their relatives, friends, and ethnic comrades deported as the result of a crackdown on illegal aliens. Moreover, as the weather improves in the spring, Chamie expects demonstrations by immigrants and their supporters wanting legalization.
Many will push for loose immigration policies to suit their interests, Chamie says. Businesses see immigrants as cheap labor, he says. Roman Catholic bishops, he continues, will urge opening the nation's doors to more immigrants, many of them Catholic.
In 1986, with strong support from President Reagan, the government gave nearly 3 million illegal aliens legal status or amnesty. It was to be the last such amnesty.
Since then, though, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have seriously tried to stem the growing number of illegal immigrants by penalizing their employers. Only last year did the Bush administration and some states take more serious enforcement action.
"That is starting to bear fruit," says Krikorian. Anecdotal evidence suggests some Mexicans here illegally are going home and fewer are coming north. Illegal aliens in states cracking down, such as Oklahoma and Arizona, are shifting to Texas or other more friendly states.
Both Republicans and Democrats agree on the need to tighten US borders. Last Monday, President Bush proposed increasing spending on border security by 19 percent. He calls for nearly $500 million to hire 2,200 new border patrol agents and $2 billion over two years for more fencing and high-tech surveillance along the border with Mexico.
But even with tighter borders, the problem of 12 million illegals remains.
Krikorian says consistent, across-the-board enforcement of existing laws will prompt many illegals to give up and deport themselves. "Enforcement is what the public wants," he says.
But Chamie doubts many illegal Hispanic immigrants will leave voluntarily, even with hard enforcement of the laws. They have become too socialized to American ways. Their children may not even speak Spanish. The women like their relative independence here, compared with life in their home countries.
If a new system of employer verification identification to catch illegal workers becomes workable, many will find work off the books, rely on extended families to survive, or even panhandle and wash cars for $5, Chamie predicts.
Washington, given the way it works, may eventually compromise on some mixture of enforcement, more secure borders, and legalization.