Friday, January 4, 2008

Has immigration become new 'third rail'?

Dec. 29, 2007, 11:58PM
Has immigration become new 'third rail'?
States are left to create their own unique solutions as the '08 elections occupy Capitol Hill

By MICHELLE MITTELSTADT
Copyright 2007 Houston Chronicle Washington Bureau


WASHINGTON — In ways unseen in decades, immigration elbowed its way to the center of the political, legislative and public arenas in Texas and around the nation during 2007 amid rising anger over the nation's porous borders.

Solutions proved elusive, however, as Congress and the Bush administration for the second time in two years failed to adopt a comprehensive fix that would both deter new illegal entries and recalibrate a legal immigration system that doesn't satisfy U.S. labor demands. With the presidential and congressional campaigns in full swing, all sides acknowledge the door has slammed shut on any further prospects for reform until 2009 at the earliest.

Faced with Washington's unwillingness to tackle the white-hot problem, policymakers in state capitals and city halls across the country unleashed a blizzard of immigration-related bills — leaving in their wake a patchwork of laws that in some cases crack down on illegal immigrants and in others seek to offer them protections.


A matter of numbers

The dichotomy is evident elsewhere as well.
The Statue of Liberty, the beacon for generations of newcomers and a powerful symbol of America's melting-pot heritage, now stands in stark contrast to the fence being erected along 370 miles of the U.S.-Mexico boundary.

In some ways, it's no surprise that the topic of immigration — legal and illegal — has exploded into the public consciousness.

Every 30 seconds, the U.S. population grows by one person because of international migration. And the foreign-born population has surged, accounting for more than 12 percent of the overall population, up from 6 percent in 1980.

Though illegal immigration has long been a fact of life, the topic flared both because of the population's size — now in excess of 12 million — and the new arrivals' willingness in recent years to fan out well beyond Texas and the five other states (California, New York, Illinois, Florida and New Jersey) where most of the foreign-born are concentrated.

Americans appear to favor a nuanced solution.

Though sizable majorities want beefed-up enforcement at the borders and in the workplace, poll after poll also shows a reluctance to deport 12 million people. Instead, a majority favors granting earned citizenship to illegal immigrants who are hard-working and don't have criminal records.

But with both political parties maneuvering to innoculate themselves against the political peril that immigration holds — and capitalize on its upside with their respective bases — it's anybody's guess when politicians will return to the table.

After all, as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has said, "Immigration has become a third rail in American politics."

michelle.mittelstadt@chron.com

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