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Immigration Likely A Key US Election Issue

Immigration is expected to be a significant issue in the November congressional elections in the United States.

Immigration reform can be an emotional issue. It is for these immigrant rights protesters in Florida.

Emotional as well for Republican Congressman J.D. Hayworth, who is from the southwestern border of state of Arizona.

Hayworth says many of his constituents want the federal government to crack down on illegal immigrants crossing into the country from Mexico.

"Washington has been slow getting around to this problem. But the people have spoken and the people say, enforce our borders and enforce our laws," he said.

Hayworth is part of a group of vocal Republicans in the House of Representatives who favor legislation that would emphasize border security and criminalize illegal immigrants.

That group is at odds with President Bush, who prefers a Senate version of reform that seeks to secure the borders and also offers a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now inside the country.

"I will always remember that immigrants have helped shaped the character of this nation. We are a land of immigrants. We are a nation of law and we can be a compassionate nation when it comes to immigration, and the two do not conflict," he said.

The divisions among Republicans on this issue are sharp, as Congressman Hayworth demonstrated during a recent speech to a group of college students who gathered in Washington.

"And on this question, respectfully, politely but profoundly, Mr. President, you are wrong," he said.

Democrats are divided over the issue as well, though many tend to favor the approach that combines border security with an option for illegal immigrants to legalize their status.

A recent public opinion poll found that immigration is likely to be a top issue in the November elections.

"Looking at this, the top six issues were Iraq, the economy and jobs, immigration, terrorism, health care and a decline in moral values," said Brian Nienaber, of the Tarrance Group, a Republican polling firm.

University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato predicts immigration will be a top issue in many of the states along the Mexico-U.S. border.

"In the southwestern United States, immigration is a big, big issue. It may be the top issue, even more important than Iraq. In other parts of the country, less so. It is on the agenda, but it is well down the agenda," he said.

Many analysts note, however, that congressional midterm elections are often decided by local issues and the relative strengths and weaknesses of local candidates.

The immigration debate could have a political impact far beyond this year's election.

Hispanic-Americans made up nearly 13 percent of the voters in the 2004 election and that vote will continue to grow quickly in the years ahead, providing opportunities for both major political parties.

"The Hispanics are the largest growing group in our society and in the electorate, and since the parties are at parity today, they are about equal, how the Hispanic votes goes in the future may determine which of the two major parties becomes the majority party," said Stephen Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington.

Congress remains deadlocked over competing versions of immigration reform legislation and it remains unclear whether a compromise will emerge before the elections.

Democrats need to pick up 15 seats to regain a majority in the House and six seats to retake control of the Senate.