WASHINGTON — With the nation’s second largest population of illegal immigrants behind California , and 1,200-mile long border with Mexico , Texas seemed tailor-made for a bruising confrontation on immigration in advance of the state’s March 4 presidential primaries.
But after more than 40 earlier primaries and caucuses, the issue that once threatened to roil the 2008 presidential race has seemingly lost much of its intensity. The three candidates who now dominate the race share similar ideas on how to fix the nation’s tattered immigration system.
As colleagues in the U.S. Senate, Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Republican John McCain supported bipartisan efforts to legalize millions of undocumented immigrants, the most controversial ingredient in failed immigration legislation.
Their past record on immigration, coupled with their campaign pledges, point to a continuation of President Bush's efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration laws, regardless of which candidate ultimately wins.
At a debate on Thursday at the University of Texas , Clinton and Obama both recommitted themselves to comprehensive legislation that would put illegal immigrants on a path to U.S. citizenship after they paid fines and back taxes and learn English. Clinton promised to introduce a legalization measure in her first 100 days as president.
McCain, who is closing in on the Republican nomination, worked with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., to push legalization proposals in broad-ranging legislation that served as the basis for major Senate bills over the past two years.
After his alliance with Kennedy chased away support among Republican conservatives, McCain has since retooled his immigration policies to put first priority on toughening border security before dealing with legalization and other elements of an immigration bill.
But he has acknowledged continued support for legalization and an immigrant guest worker program. At a Jan. 6 debate in New Hampshire , when asked if he still has a plan for a path to citizenship, McCain responded: ``Sure. But the fact is that the American people have lost trust and confidence in government, and we have to secure the borders first.’’
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, McCain's main challenger, is pushing what pro-immigration groups consider a get-tough policy that would require undocumented immigrants to leave the country before being eligible to apply for permanent residency. Those who failed to leave would be barred from returning to the United States for 10 years.
The other Republican still in the race, Texas Rep. Ron Paul of Houston, also takes a hard-line against what he calls amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants, saying ``that’s a lot of people to reward for breaking our laws.’’
In Texas , the most volatile issue related to immigration is the Bush Administration’s construction of a border fence that is widely opposed by land owners and border-area political leaders.
Although all three senators voted for the fence, Clinton and Obama, the only two Democrats still in the race, have largely sided with fence opponents. While some fencing may be necessary, they say, the Democratic candidates contend that added personal and high-tech hardware is the preferable solution to protecting the border.
``This is an area where Sen. Clinton and I almost entirely agree,’’ Obama said during last Thursday's debate.
Similarly, McCain has advocated physical barriers around urban areas but says that vehicle barriers and high-tech gadgetry — such as unmanned drones and sensors — would be more effective in isolated desert areas.
At the outset of the presidential race, immigration emerged as a hot-button issue among Republicans, fueled by deep political divisions that were evident in Bush’s unsuccessful efforts to get an immigration bill through Congress.
But the issue was later eclipsed by voter concerns over the economy and health care. Republican candidates pushing restrictive policies — Tom Tancredo, Mitt Romney, Rudolph Giuliani and Fred Thompson — all dropped from the race. ``Immigration is a dud issue,’’ Houston-area Republican pollster David Hill wrote in an op-ed article. ``Immigration baiters like Mitt Romney and Rudy Giuliani went to the showers early. Someone should ask: if the immigration issue is such a `killer’ issue, why are its staunchest advocates such losers.’’
Rep. Charles Gonzalez, D-San Antonio, an Obama supporter, calls immigration an ``issue of interest’’ among Texas Hispanics but adds, ``it’s not a controlling issue.’’ In Edinburg in deep South Texas, residents are upset over the border fence but, overall, don’t regard immigration as a pressing issue, says Jerry Polinard, a professor at the University of Texas-Pan American.
``When you start talking about what the major issues are,’’ he saids, "it’s the economy, health care and education. Immigration is way down the ladder.’’
Pro-immigration groups are heartened by the softening tone over immigration while groups pressing for limits on immigration are braced for another administration that will likely continue Bush’s efforts.
``It’s has been a good election season for us,’’ said Frank Sharry, director of America ’s Voice and a leader in the coalition that pushed comprehensive immigration legislation in Congress. ``Most pundits thought that immigration was an issue that worked for hard-line Republicans and hurt pro-immigration Democrats.
``And, in fact, just the opposite seems to be true,’’ he said. ``It’s been an issue that Democrats are aggressively using to court Latino and immigrant voters. I think that’s a big story.’’
Jack Martin, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), which wants to restrict immigration, said that any of the three dominant candidates who enters the White House ``is likely to be sympathetic to the argument s in favor of an amnesty.’’
``It looks like, regardless of who wins the election, we are going to have to continue to count on the Congress to avoid the unwise policies that are being pushed by business, ethnic advocacy organizations and elites,’’ he said.