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In America, What to Make of Immigrants?

October 19, 2006 By:
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Demonstrators hold signs and American flags during a May 2006 anti-immigration rally in Santa Clara, Calif.

In a state where illegal immigrants are estimated to number between 125,000 to 175,000 out of a total population of more than 12 million -- and at a time when the war in Iraq reigns as the foremost political issue of the day -- it remains to be seen to what extent the national debate over immigration reform, and both parties' attempts to utilize the issue to their advantage, will factor into the final outcome on Election Day.

And on an issue in which several Jewish organizations have taken an activist role -- the American Jewish Committee and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society have advocated an immigration policy that creates a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants -- the final tallies in the House and Senate may determine how immigration policy is addressed by the 110th Congress.

"Immigration has become a very hot issue over the last several years, and there is a sense of insecurity as to what this all means," said Richard Foltin, legislative director for the American Jewish Committee.

Even though fewer than 10 percent of respondents in two recent Keystone Polls cited immigration as the No. 1 platform on which they'll cast their vote, Republican incumbents like Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) and U.S. Rep. Jim Gerlach (R-District 6) have taken a hard stance on the issue, and tried to use it to motivate their base and attract independent voters.

Take, for example, the Monday-morning rush-hour debate between Santorum and his Democratic challenger, Pennsylvania State Treasurer Bob Casey, which took place at the KYW newsroom studios in Center City.

The moderators of what in the end turned out to be a tempestuous encounter -- the third of four scheduled debates between the two men -- never even broached the topic of immigration and how best to reform what all sides agree is a broken system.

But that didn't stop either Santorum from sounding off on the issue, or Casey from claiming that his opponent hasn't done enough in his time in office to secure the nation's borders.

Responding to a question about how to make health insurance available to more Americans, Santorum replied that, "If you look at the 45 million people in this country who are uninsured in this country, about 13 million are illegal immigrants.

"Those illegal immigrants are, in fact, driving up health-care costs because someone else is paying those costs," he continued.

"So you're for deporting 13 million people?" Casey shot back.

"I'm for deporting the criminals in this country who are here illegally," responded Santorum. They managed to go back and forth about whether Casey does or does not support "amnesty" before the moderators moved on to something else.

A Nation Divided

This year, illegal immigration has been debated everywhere from the U.S. Senate chamber to much smaller legislative hubs like Hazelton, Pa., where the City Council passed stringent laws to crack down on illegal immigrants -- laws that have put the little town on the map, and which have already prompted some legal challenges.

Just like the two houses of Congress, which have passed two seemingly irreconcilable bills on immigration -- the House bill focused on punitive measures against illegal immigrants, and the Senate bill called for the creation of a guest-worker program, and a path to citizenship for immigrants who have resided in the country for more than two years -- the nation itself remains divided on the issue.

"The house really abandoned the negotiation process with the Senate on this issue," said Lisa Shuger, director of the HIAS office in Washington, D.C.

But public opinion seems slanted toward the House's direction; according to a poll conducted this spring by the Pew Research Center, 53 percent of respondents said that people in the United States illegally should have to return to their country of origin, while 40 percent said they should be granted legal status and be allowed to stay.

One reason has to do with security. Many Americans are concerned that it's too easy for potential terrorists to enter the country. Then, of course, comes the issue of illegal immigrants receiving services without paying taxes, although according to experts, many pay taxes through false Social Security numbers.

And on the flip side, many immigration-rights advocates argue that the backlash against illegal immigrants is motivated in part by racism.

According to a government study of the 2000 Census, roughly 69 percent of all illegal immigrants come from Mexico.

'Take Control of Things'

Whatever the explanations, the above poll numbers may explain why Democrats such as Casey, as well as congressional challengers like Lois Murphy, have scrambled to avoid being portrayed as soft on illegal immigration, and have repeatedly charged that the Republican incumbents have not done enough to secure America's borders.

"The federal government must provide the necessary resources to patrol our borders, and we must prosecute companies that break the law by hiring illegal immigrants," declared Murphy.

As an example of the veritable back and the forth, the Gerlach camp has claimed that Murphy expressed support for the bill passed by the Senate in May, though she's denied ever supporting it. Opponents of that bill say that it supports amnesty -- the idea that illegal immigrants will be granted citizenship without having to pay for skirting the law -- while supporters that those seeking citizenship would have to pay back taxes and fines for living and working here without a visa.

"It gets to the point where you have to take control of things. For illegal aliens to be receiving all of the benefits, all of the same services, as people who came legally is a problem," said Kenneth E. Davis, chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Committee.

Davis said that he thought the issue was working well for Gerlach and Santorum, adding that their hard lines have demonstrated their independence from President George W. Bush. At the start of his presidency, Bush advocated a policy shift that would create a guest-worker program for undocumented immigrants, but such talk had been sidelined after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, until he raised it again this year.

Mark Aronchick, a prominent Democratic activist and a backer of both Casey and Murphy, argued that playing the immigration card would prove a losing proportion for the GOP.

"It's going to be a failed strategy; people have been turned off. The more they go about railing about the immigration problem and making it seem like we are going to have an invasion of aliens, it is going to get us votes," he said.

"If anyone knows where Pennsylvania is on issues, it's Sen. Arlen Spector (R-Pa.)," he added.

Spector was one of the prime backers of the bill that ultimately passed the Senate, and is supported by groups such as the American Jewish Committee and HIAS. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce agrees arguing that immigration has a positive effect by supplying workers to fill low-skill, low-wage jobs.

Tossing Around the Bill

Santorum opposed the Senate bill that Spector backed and was ultimately passed, though it appears to be going nowhere in this legislative session. Casey said that the bill was problematic, but would have probably supported it nonetheless.

U.S. Reps. Michael Fitzpatrick (R-District 8), Curt Weldon (R-District 7 and Gerlach supported the House bill, which would make it a felony to enter America illegally. U.S. Reps. Bob Brady (D-District 1), Chakah Fattah (D-District 2) and Allyson Schwartz (D-District 13) opposed the bill.

As for the Democratic congressional candidates, Joe Sestak, Patrick Murphy and Lois Murphy all said that they would have supported neither bill, citing problems with both.

Carrie James, a spokeswoman for Patrick Murphy, said that the candidate would have opposed the House bill because it punished clergy for aiding illegal immigrants, while also opposing the Senate bill because it didn't crack down hard enough on employers who hire migrants.

"Since 9/11, we haven't done nearly enough to protect our borders," insisted James.

When asked about the tough rhetoric on immigration that's been put forth by Democrats Casey and Murphy, as well as congressional candidates Joe Sestak and Patrick Murphy, Aronchick replied that Democrats would be far more willing to negotiate and seek a solution on the issue than their Republican counterparts.

G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs, said that based on everything that's happened in the past year, including large pro-immigration rallies that took place this spring, he expected immigration to poll as a more important issue than it did.

Still, he reasoned, in certain nail-biter races like the Gerlach-Murphy contest, every voter motivated in part by the immigration issue may count at the end of the day.

"The Republican campaign operative say the immigration issue galvanizes their core voters. It isn't an issue they expect will swing huge numbers," said Madonna. "The problem the Republicans are having is that their base is not very motivated."

Partisan politics aside, immigration-rights advocates hope that whoever holds sway in the new Congress, elected officials will put their differences aside and work out a sensible solution to the immigration dilemma.

"Why do we have 10 million illegal aliens?" posed Jane Goldblum, a Center City-based immigration lawyer. "We don't have any laws that permit the skilled and unskilled workers to work here legally."

And what of plans to spend billions of dollars on the creation of a 700-mile border fence with Mexico?

"I'd love for them to try a guest-worker program first, and then if it doesn't work, spend all this money on borders," relayed Goldblum. "Terrorists do not come from Mexico."

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