Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Immigration Stalemate in Congress

Today's Wall Street Journal's got timely article on the current logjam on immigration reform in Congress. Ironically, congressional attention itself has had the effect of increasing ideological polarization over the issue:

By raising illegal immigration as a political and national-security issue -- and then doing nothing about it -- Congress has given new life to an anti-immigrant movement that had long been relegated to the political fringes, say some policy watchers and think tanks.

"The conduct of members of Congress has given it license and credibility," Rev. Rivera says. With a national election around the corner, and control of Congress at stake, "nobody from Washington wants to respond to these words being hammered against us."

Congress's failure to stem illegal immigration "may well flare up in unpleasant ways," agrees Mark Krikorian, director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, which favors immigration restrictions and enforcement. But he adds that pro-immigration groups have responded with questionable behavior of their own, including the "We were here first" signs some Hispanics toted at rallies this spring, and charges of racism leveled at those who call for tougher border enforcement.

The problem was created, he and others say, when the House and Senate passed starkly different immigration bills. The Republican-proposed House bill calls for a fence along the border and makes illegal immigration a felony; it currently is a misdemeanor. The Senate bill, which attracted more support from Democrats than Republicans, would let most illegal immigrants stay in the U.S. after paying fines and back taxes, and largely reflects President Bush's calls for a law that supplies the economy with the workers it needs.

Congressional negotiators never met to iron out their differences, and final passage now seems unlikely before the November elections. Republicans are split between the party's pro-immigrant business wing and its anti-immigrant cultural conservatives. Democrats see political benefit in letting the issue simmer while they tar Republicans as anti-Hispanic for passing the House bill.

The high-profile debate has rallied immigration supporters, with many native-born Americans joining hundreds of thousands of immigrants at rallies calling to overhaul immigrant laws. But those rallies and the debate over the House and Senate bills also have focused public attention on the fast-growing illegal population and fanned fears of terrorists easily crossing U.S. borders.
The deadlock in Congress corresponds with several huge demographic trends. The U.S. is adding one million immigrants a year, a historical high. Half are illegal entrants, who tend to be poor, uneducated and Hispanic.

In the past, most immigrants settled in a half-dozen "gateway" states. But the growth in low-skilled jobs in the South and Midwest is luring them to states that aren't used to large numbers of foreigners.

That has captured the attention of state and local governments, which complain that they are carrying the health-care, education and other social costs of illegal immigration. Local leaders are "frustrated by the lack of federal action, so they're looking for things they can do," says Ann Morse, who tracks immigration for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
I have paid a lot of attention to the immigration issue. See, for example, my deep analysis of the GOP split over illegal immigration, as well as my post on California's success in attracting a rich diversity of legal immigrants from all over the world.

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