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Most Americans Positive about Immigration - 2001-08-08

Economic, demographic, and political trends in the United States are reversing the anti-immigrant sentiment of the last decade. A drive to liberalize U.S. immigration laws is uniting such traditional opponents as business and labor, Democrats and Republicans.

Business views immigration as a way to ease worker shortages. To organized labor, immigrants are potential union members. Both political parties see the six to nine million illegal immigrants presently in the United States as potential recruits.

And the general public also appears to be positive about immigration. For 50 years, American University professor Rita Simon says, public opinion polls have shown that most Americans wanted fewer immigrants.

Starting in 1997, she says, the public opinion polls reversed, with a majority saying they wanted the same number or more. "And remember we allow in legally about 700,000 immigrants a year, so there is some change in public perception of immigrants! They are no longer viewed as taking jobs that Americans want. They take jobs, rather, that Americans are less likely to want. They pay their fair share of taxes," Ms. Simon says.

In fact, she says, after 10 years of strong economic growth, worker scarcity has become a greater fear than job scarcity. Immigration is also seen as a way of bringing in more young people for the aging U.S. population.

But the positive outlook is not universal. In the small suburban community of Farmingville, New York, for example, a smuggling operation has dropped off large groups of undocumented Mexicans. According to resident Ray Wysolmiersky, the town is in an uproar.

"Now we have in the middle of town hundreds and hundreds of illegal aliens who are trying to gain employment by the solicitation of trucks or small businesses on the streets," says Mr. Wysolmiersky. "People are afraid the values of their houses are going to plummet and that the community we once had will forever be gone."

American University history professor Alan Kraut says problems like those in Farmingville have occurred throughout U.S. history during periods of great immigration. "It is the country doing what it has done many times in the past, and that is making its accommodations with new groups that are coming to this society. I think what we're seeing is a period of enormous transition in some areas of the country," he says.

Immigrants come here, Mr. Kraut says, for good jobs and a better way of life. Their arrival may be disruptive, he adds, but those goals usually transform them into good citizens.