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Immigration Debate Rages in American Southwest - 2004-10-13


This year's U.S. presidential campaign comes at a time of increasing friction in border states like Arizona over the issue of illegal immigration. Nevertheless, President George Bush and his opponent, Senator John Kerry, have said little about it up to now. Activists on both sides of the immigration divide are looking for support from the candidates.

The issue of illegal immigration has energized voters in Arizona in particular, because most of the undocumented migrants currently entering the United States do so at the remote desert crossing points along the state's border with Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol has set up special operations in Arizona to reduce the flow of illegal immigrants, but there are indications that thousands of people make it across the border each week.

Neither immigration restriction advocates nor those who favor a more open border are happy with what the presidential candidates have proposed so far. Jack Martin, special projects director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), says President Bush and Senator Kerry tend to avoid the issue.

"Both candidates are most interested in skirting the issue of dealing with immigration," he said. "They have proposals on the table that would cater to the private sector's interest in having low-wage labor, which they are able to get through illegal immigration, and also to cater to the interests of the ethnic advocacy groups in seeing their groups grow."

Mr. Martin notes that recent public opinion polls show a majority of U.S. citizens want tighter immigration controls and that, even among Hispanics, around half those polled are against illegal immigration.

But in the border region of Arizona, there is great sympathy for the immigrants, especially among Hispanics. Ray Rodriguez is with the Pima County Interfaith Council, a group that includes representatives from all major churches and synagogues in the Tucson, Arizona area. He says immigrants would welcome a system that allowed them to work legally in the United States and he would like to hear the candidates address this.

"For whatever the reason, obviously they have had different issues to talk about, but they have not said anything about immigration," he added. "What are we going to do to allow families movement across the border, those who are wanting to work and also those who want to bring their families, family reunification needs to be established."

In January, President Bush announced a proposal to give temporary legal status to some undocumented workers already in the United States, but neither side in the immigration debate was fully happy with the idea and Congress has yet to act on it. For his part, Senator Kerry has said that, if elected, he will present a plan within 100 days that would allow immigrants to earn legalization, while at the same time boosting border security.

The immigration issue is also being addressed on the ballot in Arizona through Proposition 200, the so-called "Protect Arizona Now" proposition. If passed, it would require state officials and groups receiving government funds to ask for proof of citizenship before providing services to anyone. Groups advocating restrictions on immigration have hailed the proposal, while immigrant rights' groups decry it. Polls indicate that the proposition is likely to pass.