Passions stirred on immigration, but Congress unlikely to act

McClatchy NewspapersMay 1, 2010 

WASHINGTON — After watching Arizona adopt a controversial new immigration law, Laura Long of North Carolina thinks that the federal government should butt out and let other states write similar laws.

"I think other states are going to follow suit," said Long, a member of Triangle Conservatives Unite, a Raleigh group. "States should pick up these laws. Washington should step back."

However, Gaby Pacheco, a South Florida student who came to the United States from Ecuador at age 7, said that President Barack Obama and Congress instead needed to step up and push through a comprehensive immigration law to pre-empt other states from developing their own.

"I understand the politics, but we're disappointed because so many people are suffering," Pacheco said.

With the stroke of Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's pen on April 23, the immigration issue once again detonated passionate reactions across America.

"It's all that everybody's talking about," Jim Delgado, a Manatee County, Fla., lawyer, said of fellow Hispanics. "It's a mixture of despair and anger. They're scared."

Almost 3,000 miles away in Modesto, Calif., farmer Paul Wenger sees both sides.

"There are a lot of people resentful of those folks here illegally working, and I understand that. But I also understand that this country was built on the backs of immigrants, and there is still a place for people who want to work here and go home."

Will Arizona's new get-tough law lead to action in Congress or swing the polls in November?

Probably not. But the potential is suddenly, dramatically there.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of advocates for an overhaul of immigration law are expected to join marches across the country to show their frustration at what they say is the glacial pace that Obama and Congress have set in dealing with immigration. They say that created a legal void that Arizona decided to fill on its own.

Senate Democrats on Thursday unveiled a 26-page immigration overhaul proposal that includes a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country, while emphasizing stronger security along the U.S.-Mexican border, a provision designed to attract Republican support.

That measured approach contrasts sharply with the Arizona law. It gives local officials broad power to detain anyone under "reasonable suspicion" of being an illegal immigrant. Opponents fear that it gives authorities license to engage in racial profiling; supporters say that little else has worked and something needs to be done.

Chuck Hautot works with farmworkers at Taylor & Fulton Farms in Palmetto, Fla., which employs 200 to 300 laborers during tomato-packing season, and he's concerned.

"We just work every day," he said. "I'm sure it (Arizona's law) would frighten some of the people. If you were in their shoes, you'd be scared too."

Despite all the heat, however, Congress shows little appetite for overhauling immigration law this year.

"There is not a chance that immigration is going to move through the Congress," predicted House of Representatives Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "You cannot do a serious piece of legislation of this size, with this difficulty, in this environment."

Washington has seen this play before.

Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., remembers the pressures and pitfalls of trying to push an immigration bill through Congress in 2007.

While senators were hung up on procedural minutiae, Lott noticed "Democrats running out the door because of the labor unions and Republicans running out the door because of Rush Limbaugh. This is a very dangerous issue."

Today lawmakers from both parties are painfully aware of immigration's political price, with congressional elections only six months away.

"Passing an immigration bill would have consequences," said Evans Witt, the chief executive officer of Princeton Survey Research Associates. "Remember, turnout will be down this year, and that tends to help more conservative Republicans. Generally, if an immigration bill passes this year, it would not be good for incumbents."

While some senators are trying to forge a bipartisan immigration bill, House Democrats are in no hurry to confront another divisive issue after taking tough votes for the White House on health care, climate control and bailouts of the automobile and financial industries.

"There's a feeling among some (House Democrats) that 'We've fallen on our swords enough; it's not worth it,' " said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who thinks that lawmakers should deal with immigration this year. "They're afraid if they take a hard vote and it moves to the Senate, it won't pass there."

That reluctance hasn't gone unnoticed by Obama, who acknowledged Wednesday that "There may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial matter."

Obama wooed Latino voters in 2008 on a campaign promise to revamp immigration laws, but now he, like lawmakers in Congress, is caught in the tug of war between hard-liners and those who seek less harsh alternatives.

Polls show that most Americans like Arizona's approach to illegal immigration. A new Gallup Poll found that about 51 percent who'd heard of the new law favored it, while about 39 percent of them opposed it and 11 percent had no opinion of it.

Among all Americans, 39 percent favor the law, 30 percent oppose it and 31 percent have no opinion or haven't heard about it, Gallup said.

Those numbers mask the depth of emotion in many quarters, however.

"People are really outraged, and people are going to be showing it. It has energized the community," said Gerardo Dominguez, a cannery union organizer in California's Central Valley and an immigrant-rights activist.

"When they say immigrants, they mean Mexicans. They're not going to be looking for Eastern Europeans," he said.

Latino leaders in the Midwest agree.

"If I have a statue of the patron saint of Guadalupe on my dashboard, or a rosary, or a bumper sticker that says, 'Viva Mexico,' the only thing a police officer needs is suspicion," said Joe Arce, the publisher of KC Hispanic News in Kansas City, Mo. "That concerns us."

Fears that the Arizona law will lead to police persecution of Latinos are overblown, said Kris Kobach, a professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who helped draft the law.

"The critics who are lambasting this bill have obviously not read it," he said. "It has a provision in there designed to prevent racial profiling. If people think police officers are inherently corrupt and will violate the very laws they're supposed to enforce, then they have a problem with police officers, not with this law."

Several pollsters and elected officials say that while Arizona's action has stirred passion on the immigration issue, particularly in Western states, it's gained little traction as a national campaign issue.

"When you ask voters what's important, it's way down the scales," said Brad Coker, the managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling and Research. "It's still government, the economy, even health care."

Pollster Witt said the immigration issue could affect individual congressional races and state-level elections, particularly in states where the Hispanic population is 20 percent or more. Republican strategists list 10 to 15 House races — mostly in Arizona, Nevada, Texas and Colorado — where the issue will be strong.

Another factor complicates this calculus: the business community. It generally supports a path to citizenship, and has been clamoring for years for clarification of the law.

In the past two years, the number of North Carolina companies that are enrolled in E-Verify, which allows employers to check the legal status of new hires, has more than tripled, to 4,466, according to the Department of Homeland Security. In the Triangle area of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, those that have signed up include technology giants SAS, Red Hat and IBM, as well as companies such as McLaurin Parking in Raleigh and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

In 2008, Columbia Farms in Greenville, S.C., a subsidiary of House of Raeford Farms, headquartered in Raeford, N.C., was indicted on charges of intentionally hiring illegal immigrants. The plant manager, the human resources manager and about a dozen supervisors were arrested.

Since the raid, the company has curbed its reliance on Latino workers. Workers at the company's main plant in Raeford said last year that the company had stopped hiring immigrants and had let hundreds more go for using fake documents.

Gilberto Bergman, the president of Bergman Brothers Staffing of Charlotte, cited that case when he noted that companies no longer can claim that they didn't know they'd hired workers who were using fake IDs. He said companies were using programs such as E-Verify to protect themselves in the event of raids or investigations.

"When they arrest a HR person, that's a big deal," he said. "Nobody wants to hire illegal people."

Another worry is that Arizona's crackdown could drive workers to other states.

"If there are 450,00 illegal immigrants in Arizona, they are going to head to other states to find work," said Manuel Cunha, the president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, Calif., an organization Japanese-American farmers created that's evolved into a broad-based farmer advocacy group. "And that will create problems for families that are already struggling to survive in agriculture."

California's San Joaquin Valley already has double-digit unemployment in many farming communities. Three consecutive dry years have forced some farmers to fallow acres and resort to layoffs or reduced hours for hundreds of workers. Cunha worries that an influx of Arizona workers could make a bad situation in the valley even worse.

"If more workers do come, where are they going to work or live?" Cunha said.

That concern has spread to the East Coast.

South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, a Republican gubernatorial candidate, explained during a recent campaign debate why undocumented workers still come to his state despite its 12.2 percent unemployment rate, the sixth highest in the country:

"The real problem is the work force. The problem is we have a giveaway system that is so strong that people would rather sit home and do nothing than do these jobs."

In Washington, the political parties are split and fear the consequences of action.

Some Republicans, worried that conservative voters would view support for immigration legislation as granting amnesty, take a secure-the-borders-first stand.

"Complete the fencing that we're required to do," said Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Make sure we have enough people at the border to enforce the law. ... It's only then that we'll be able to have a decent, good discussion about what to do about people who have been in our country a long time, and how to handle them."

Even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once a passionate supporter of immigration legislation that included a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents, has voiced support for tougher border measures and Arizona's new law.

McCain's embrace comes as he faces a tough primary challenge from conservative former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who's opposed immigration legislation that included guest worker programs.

However, several Republicans fear that if the party takes a hard line on immigration, that will further erode its appeal to Latino voters, the fastest-growing vote bloc in the country. Some, such as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, say that immigration laws like Arizona's are a mistake.

"I think it creates unintended consequences," Bush said in a statement. "It's difficult for me to imagine how you're going to enforce this law."

News media attention on the Arizona law has confused some Latinos, said Tony Asion, the executive director of El Pueblo, a Latino-advocacy group in Raleigh. People see the stories on TV and assume that the law is federal. Worried that they might be detained, immigrants are less likely to interact with law enforcement. Some crimes won't be reported, he said.

Asion, who spent 20 years working as a state trooper in Delaware, agrees that an immigration overhaul is needed, and that the federal government should take the lead.

"If there's anything good that has come out of Arizona, it's that it has gotten the attention of Washington," he said. "Sticking your head in the sand obviously hasn't worked. It has to be debated, and we need to come up with a solution."

POLLING METHODOLOGY:

The Gallup poll, a telephone survey conducted Tuesday and Wednesday, was based on a national sample of 1,013 people 18 and older. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

(Contributing to this story were Dave Helling of The Kansas City Star, Susan Ferriss of The Sacramento Bee, Robert Rodriguez of The Fresno Bee, Beth Reinhard of The Miami Herald, Alfonso Chardy of El Nuevo Herald, Matt Ehlers of The (Raleigh) News & Observer, Franco Ordonez and Jim Morrill of The Charlotte Observer, Timothy R. Wolfrum of The Bradenton Herald, Danielle E. Gaines of the Merced Sun-Star, Marijke Rowland of The Modesto Bee, Bethann Stewart of The Idaho Statesman and Lesley Clark, James Rosen and Margaret Talev of the McClatchy Washington bureau.)

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