Immigration Remains a Hot Topic for 2008

The problem of how to deal with illegal immigration was one of the big issues of 2007 for President Bush and the Congress, and promises to remain on the table in 2008.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

The issue of illegal immigration continued to boil in 2007. President Bush vowed when he came to office to make it easier for millions of migrants to work in the United States. The president advocated what he called comprehensive immigration reform. But opponents called it amnesty. And Congress failed to pass the legislation.

As we head into the new year, the issue remains alive, if not on Capitol Hill and the White House, then in state courts and on the campaign trail.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden covers immigration, and she is in the studio with us.

Jennifer, first of all, how did illegal immigration become a national issue?

JENNIFER LUDDEN: It's really because in the past decade, we have seen this incredible movement of immigrants in the country. They're no longer coming to New York and L.A. They're coming straight from Mexico or Central America to small towns.

Wherever there's a meat-packing plant, agriculture, they go straight to these jobs. So these new networks have formed. And that's why we've been seeing, you know, congressmen back home are getting an earful from their constituents and they come to Capitol Hill and we have, you know, senators from Iowa railing about border security.

HANSEN: Jennifer, remind us, what were the components of President Bush's proposal?

LUDDEN: He and his administration talked for repeatedly about three legs of a stool. They said you've got to have enforcement at the border. You've got to have more enforcement in the workplace. But you also, in tandem, have to have some way to legalize many of the millions of workers who are now in the country. They said it's unrealistic to deport them. The economy needs them. In any case, so this all have to happen together. And they talk about bringing these people out of the shadows.

And one of the president's biggest supporters in this was South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): I think we've got a bill that reflects who we are as Americans. And the people who will get to participate in this program will get a chance to be American - on our terms, not theirs.

HANSEN: So Jennifer, what were the problems that Congress and, mainly, Republicans? What problems do they have in the Bush package?

LUDDEN: It really boils down to one word that you referred to, amnesty. They didn't care that immigrants would have had to pay fines, pay taxes, learn English and so forth. For them, they said, look, bottom line, you're rewarding people who entered the country illicitly.

Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama was a leading critic, and he also questioned, you know, the bill's effectiveness.

Senator JEFF SESSIONS (Republican, Alabama): Everyone becomes legal at once under this bill and stay there no matter what happens. But even if the new reforms in it take place according to the Congressional Budget Office, we would only have about a 13-percent reduction in illegality. That's just not sufficient.

HANSEN: Jennifer, why did the bill fail?

LUDDEN: I think, Liane, what we saw this year was in a way a backlash to what we saw last year. If you recall the spring of 2006, massive marches, hundreds of thousands of immigrants in the street, which energized their cause but also energized the opposition. And we saw proponents, those supporting legalization on the defense of this year. And they kind of tied themselves into knots, trying to come up with legislation that wouldn't be labeled amnesty, though, in the end it still was. And they ended up with a compromise, including the certain controversial guest-worker program that even some immigrant advocates in the end did not support.

HANSEN: Has President Bush been doing anything to try to salvage the effort?

LUDDEN: He largely has seemed to back down and switch gears. After the congressional failure, his Homeland Security chief, Michael Chertoff said, okay, we got the message. The public wants enforcement. Fine, we'll do enforcement. And we have seen increased rates on immigrant's homes and workplaces.

At the end of the summer, Chertoff announced a series of other measures and a big one is to make employers liable. If their employees can't prove that their Social Security number is legitimate, and this is the way to get at, you know, illegal immigrants use fake Social Security numbers. Business and civil rights groups had sued; that's been held up in the courts. But the administration is rewriting it, and I think we're going to see that back in the courts next year.

HANSEN: So for the time being the issue has moved from Washington to the states and to localities. Remind us because there was a case in Hazleton, Pennsylvania. What happened?

LUDDEN: Hazleton passed an ordinance that wanted to try to punish employers and landlords of illegal immigrants, and it really became a symbol. A lot of other states tried to copy it. Civil rights groups sued. The case went to court in the spring, and a federal judge struck it down. He said that immigration's a federal purview, not local. He said the law violated the constitutional equal rights protections, which he said applies to everyone regardless of illegal status. That case is being appealed so you have a lot of cities now who are watching and waiting.

HANSEN: What else has been happening on the state level?

LUDDEN: The state level is really where a lot of the action is. You've seen over a thousand measures about immigration proposed this year. Dozens of them have passed and four states have really sweeping get-tough measures - Georgia, Colorado, Oklahoma, Arizona. Now, there've been legal challenges here, too, but a lot of the legislation has been allowed to take effect to, frankly, mixed effect.

Colorado passed a law to deny state benefits to illegal immigrants, and the governor had said this is going to knock 50,000 people off the welfare rolls. Not quite. Colorado discovered that it was spending millions of dollars to enforce the law that saved at virtually nothing because federal law already prohibits illegal immigrants from getting welfare.

In terms of state laws aimed at employers of illegal immigrants, there certainly a lot of anecdotal evidence that some immigrants are finding it harder to get a job and they're leaving places. In Georgia, the labor commissioner spoke very recently to conference, and he was quoted as saying that the increasing government restrictions on hiring illegal immigrants will eventually lead to labor shortages. He told employers they need to start thinking about hiring what he called marginalized workers like the elderly, the disabled, convicted criminals.

HANSEN: Illegal immigration is coming up frequently in the political campaigns in Iowa and New Hampshire. How is the issue playing out there?

LUDDEN: It almost feels like for politicians this has become a case of if you can't say something tough, don't say anything at all.

Democrats have largely avoided the topic. They all do support more enforcement but also some sort of legalization, but they saw what happens in Congress. They don't want that amnesty tag.

It's a much bigger issue also among Republican voters and especially more conservative Republicans in the primaries. And we've seen candidates being attacked as soft on illegal immigration. Some pollsters I spoke with think it will fade in the general election because, there, in the Republican Party, you've got the more business-oriented, libertarian faction that sees immigrants as needed in the economy.

HANSEN: So where is the action heading on this issue in 2008?

LUDDEN: I think we're going to see more states and localities grappling with this issue and many unhappily so. But at the federal level, not much is expected until after the presidential election. It's just too controversial for Congress to deal with. And whatever the winning candidate on the campaign trail says about it now when they become president, as we saw with President Bush, whatever they're able to accomplish is very much going to depend on who gets in Congress.

HANSEN: NPR's Jennifer Ludden covers immigration issues.

Thanks very much.

LUDDEN: Thank you.

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