The issue of illegal immigration has stirred passions around the nation in the past year and it is playing a role in some congressional races around the country. One place where it is a big issue is southern Arizona, where the majority of illegal entries from Mexico occur. The candidates for Congress from one district on the Mexican border are competing over who has the best approach to the problem.
The Republican candidate for Congress in Arizona's Eighth District, Randy Graf, won his party's primary in spite of opposition from the Republican National Committee in Washington. National party leaders believed the Golf professional and former state legislator was too focused on immigration and not prepared to replace retiring Republican Congressman Jim Kolbe, who has held the seat for more than 20 years.
But Randy Graf says the party strategists in Washington don't understand what the immigration issue means for those who live in a district that includes half of the state's total border with Mexico.
"The folks in Washington, D.C. looking at this district from 2,300 miles away I do not think have a complete grasp on what is important to the voters down here and, at the end of the day, this issue of illegal immigration and our open border in a district that has 80 miles [128 kilometers] of border will be one of the primary issues in this campaign," he said.
Although the Republican party is not helping Graf, a private group promoting better enforcement of immigration laws known as The Minutemen is running ads attacking his Democratic opponent, former state legislator Gabrielle Giffords. They and Graf claim she favors policies that would encourage illegal immigration.
"Illegal immigration impacts our communities, impacts on our schools, our health system and our courts," he added. "It impacts the taxpayers here in Arizona. At the end of the day, Gabrielle Giffords has to explain why she supports amnesty and open borders."
Giffords rejects that charge.
"We need to solve this problem with a comprehensive approach. I support the approach of Senator John McCain, the approach of Governor Napolitano, Congressman Kolbe, and, yes, even President Bush, in solving this problem," she said. "We need to address this problem with electronic surveillance, high-tech solutions. We need to be able to crack down on employers who are employing these people illegally and we need a guest worker program."
Giffords argues that a guest worker program with a path to citizenship is not a pardon for those who broke immigration laws and therefore not an amnesty. She says she understands the burden illegal immigration has put on this state.
"We are angry in southern Arizona," she explained. "We bear the costs in our law enforcement, our first responders, our hospitals, our clinics and even our schools. It is a federal crisis and the federal government needs to step up and take responsibility."
But University of Arizona Political Science Professor Bill Dixon says other issues, like terrorism, the war in Iraq and health care are more important to most voters.
One recent poll shows Giffords with a substantial overall lead and, Dixon notes, even on the issue of immigration Graf has no advantage.
"It turns out that Graf and Giffords are evenly split, which is quite an interesting result when you think about it," said Mr. Dixon. "On all the other issues, Giffords holds a rather strong lead over Graf. So Graf really will need to go beyond the border issue if he is to make any headway."
Professor Dixon says voters who rally to the cause of defending the border are countered by those who rally behind the immigrants. He says while some taxpayers may resent paying for social services and health care for illegals, others sympathize with them and see them helping the economy.
"Quite frankly, if enforcement started getting really tough on employers, the agriculture industry in southern Arizona would be in deep, deep trouble," he added.
Randy Graf says some new polls show him narrowing the gap and he hopes he will get a boost from a series of upcoming debates in which he can directly challenge his opponent on the immigration issue. Giffords is ahead by anywhere from six to 13 points in recent polls, but so far she has avoided any events in which she would have appeared together with her rival, preferring to wait for the televised debates.