Newspaper Editors on Immigration and War

The debate over immigration overhaul remains a hot-button issue for many, as does the war in Iraq. A trio of editorial-page editors gauge reader reaction to these issues in Southern California, Iowa and Georgia.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

To get a better sense of how the immigration debate and other hot issues are playing out around the country, we turned to three editorial page editors around the U.S. - Carol Hunter of Des Moines Register, Bob Kittle of the San Diego Union Tribune and Jay Bookman of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Welcome to you all.

Mr. BOB KITTLE (Editor, San Diego Union Tribune): Thank you.

Ms. CAROL HUNTER (Editor, Des Moines Register): Glad to be here.

Mr. JAY BOOKMAN (Editor, Atlanta Journal-Constitution): Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Let's start with you, Jay Bookman, there in Atlanta. As we just heard, immigration is dominating the congressional election there. How long have voters been so passionate about this issue and what do you think is fueling the sentiment there?

Mr. BOOKMAN: It's been rising for probably two or three years, I would guess. It's been a rising level concern, particularly among the state's conservative Republicans and some of the rural areas where they come from and suburban areas have been the hardest hit by immigrations.

Georgia has industries that are conducive to drawing illegal immigrants. In Metro Atlanta, you've got a strong construction industry. In South Georgia, you've got a strong agriculture industry. In North Georgia, you've got the carpet-making center of the country and so you've got a lot of illegal immigrants working in the carpet industry as well as the poultry industry.

So a lot of employment draws to illegal immigrants in State of Georgia. And when you get that strong influx of people from another culture, another language, into relatively small communities, the impact is disproportionately large, I think.

ELLIOTT: Do people feel that it's straining the infrastructure there?

Mr. BOOKMAN: Yes, there's no question about it. It's - to some degree, there's a lot of prejudice and bias involved in the backlash but it's also a reflection of real problems being caused by that. It's small, poor communities getting hit with a large influx of immigrants. Immigrant children having, you know, English as a second language is a great cost on the school districts that are already overstressed. People are feeling the impact. They're not feeling the benefits, necessarily, at least in those communities. And that's being shown on the political stages well now.

ELLIOTT: How about there in Des Moines, Carol Hunter? The meatpacking industry depends on migrant workers. Is there support for the bill in the Senate?

Ms. HUNTER: There is support, certainly, among some quarters. The business community, the agricultural community, does see a value in liberalizing immigration law so that more people can come to work. Iowa's a state that would not have grown at all in the '90s if not for immigration. You know, some legal, some not.

The meatpacking industry, in particular, relies on a lot of immigrant labor. Iowa is verily - deeply divided on this. It's seen as presidential candidates campaign in Iowa for the caucuses. John McCain, who favors more moderate approach to immigration but this is causing him some problems as he campaigns in Iowa.

ELLIOTT: Bob Kittle of San Diego, just a quick drive from the border with Mexico, what are you hearing from readers there about what Congress is doing?

Mr. KITTLE: Well, Frankly, Debbie, this is the dominant issue today in San Diego. We get more letters to the editor on this topic than any other. I think San Diegans are frankly following the Senate debate rather closely because this is an issue we have wrestled with for many years.

The border here at one time was very chaotic, and there's now some order because of a heavy border patrol presence and some physical barriers - excuse me - but I think there's a sense in San Diego about the fairness of granting amnesty to millions of illegal immigrants that raises its head a lot.

I don't think people look at the practical consequences of not finding a path to legalization for those who are already here. Instead, they sort of react against the notion that, well, these people enter the county illegally and they don't want to support legislation that would in effect allow them to stay after they've entered the country illegally.

ELLIOTT: Do people suggest alternatives? Do they have suggestions for what they'd like to see in an immigration bill?

Mr. KITTLE: I think most people, based on our letters to the editor at least, they wanted the enforcement approach more than anything else. They support more physical barriers at the border, even though that's really not a practical way to solve the problem. I think, in general, there's a lot of hypocrisy on this issue, I mean, people benefit from illegal immigration in San Diego. Certainly, everyone has a gardener or a housekeeper or a babysitter and no one really checks their legal status.

That said, people are resentful at the strain on government services, particularly on schools and health care, and they really want to have it both ways in many cases.

Ms. HUNTER: Here in Iowa, we often like to think of ourselves as practical-minded and I think some of that shows in the reaction to the Senate bill. We did some polling back in January about immigration and a slender majority, 52 percent of Iowans, did favor a path to citizenship for people who are here, who have not committed any crimes after their illegal crossing. I think you have people who have a very deep feeling that no laws should not be broken but they look at the 12 million people here in America and think that something must be done.

ELLIOTT: Carol Hunter, do people there have a sense that employers should take more responsibility for enforcement?

Ms. HUNTER: Well, our Iowa poll did show that more than 80 percent of the people placed much of the blame for the immigration problem on employers who are hiring illegal immigrant. Here in Iowa, too, we have a history where we've seen some of the downsides in immigration for low-income workers.

In the meatpacking plants, those were good jobs through the 1980s, union jobs that might pay $15, $16 an hour. The meatpacking industry went through lots of changes. Those jobs now pay $10 or $11 an hour.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk now about the other big issue in the news - Iraq. I'd like to start with you, Bob Kittle in San Diego. You've got both Navy and Marine bases there in your region. As the war goes on and the surge that the United States is now engaged in has produced, at best, very mixed results. What do you hear from uniformed personnel in town?

Mr. KITTLE: Well, I think that the uniformed military will still want to try to see this through, but their families are here too. And I think there really is a growing weariness with the war, not so much a strong anti-war sentiment but, very clearly, a weariness with the war. This community has really felt in a very intimate way the impact of this war.

There have been over 315 military personnel from Camp Pendleton who have been killed in the war - mostly Marines. We have memorial services going on almost every day in San Diego. So I don't think there's a lot of confidence in the surge or a feeling that there's an end in sight, but there is certainly a sense of weariness of how do we get out of this, when will this end, how long will we have to endure this.

ELLIOTT: Jay Bookman in Atlanta, has the war come up as a big issue in the congressional election?

Mr. BOOKMAN: The leading Republican, Jim Whitehead, has been on the record as saying it's not an issue in the district. It would be interesting to see whether he's right or not. We'll learn some of that answer on Tuesday. I share Bob's assessment of where people are on this. There is no enthusiasm for the war in Georgia. Georgia is a very conservative pro-military state but there's, even among the president's defenders, there's no enthusiasm for the war anymore. There's no passion behind it. There's a reluctance to admit that we're probably going to have to leave but that is not the same thing as an eagerness or willingness to keep fighting. And so it's a marked change of position from as recently as a year or two ago.

ELLIOTT: Carol Hunter, what are you hearing from readers in Des Moines?

Ms. HUNTER: Interestingly, we did an Iowa poll last month about the war and other issues in the presidential race, and there's a very deep divide among the parties on this one. Democrats, likely caucus-goers, rated the war in Iraq as the very most important issue on a long list of issues. It was down number four among Republicans. I don't know if Republicans are just in denial or whether that reflects their true feelings about the issue. I think they don't see a way out and don't think their party looks very good on the issue. So perhaps it's not an issue they want to address.

ELLIOTT: Well, thank you all for talking with us today.

Mr. KITTLE: Thank you, Debbie.

Mr. BOOKMAN: Thank you.

Ms. HUNTER: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Carol Hunter is the editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register. She joined us from member station WOI in Des Moines. Jay Bookman is deputy editorial page editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He talked with us from Georgia Public Radio in Atlanta. And Bob Kittle is the editorial page editor for the San Diego Union Tribune. He joined us from his home.

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