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On the Issues: Hands off an untouchable issue

With economy and the war on candidates' minds, immigration is taking a back seat

POSTED: November 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.
Associated Press/

A U.S. Border Patrol vehicle patrols the U.S-Mexico border in front of vehicle barriers in Imperial Valley, Calif. The Border Patrol's growth to more than 17,000 agents - from 12,000 two years ago and nearly double from eight years ago - has been a boon to small towns along the border.

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The Rio Grande river innocently snakes its way between Mexico and the United States, creating a border that has become much more than just a border.

There are many borders throughout the world - natural or man made, physical or virtual - but few have had the ability to garner the kind of attention the southern border has, while the U.S. tries to figure out what to do about the millions who slip through unnoticed from the other side every year.

It's this border that politicians have often talked about securing to stop the flow of illegal immigrants into the U.S.

But immigration has taken a back seat to issues like the economy and health care in this election. This year's presidential candidates have played it safe, remaining relatively silent about immigration, but here in Georgia, nobody's forgotten about the divisive issue that hits so close to home.

Nearly 30 percent of Gainesville's population is foreign born, and 33.2 percent of its residents are of Hispanic or Latino origin, according to 2000 U.S. Census figures.

And many of those residents are living here illegally.

"There are so many undocumented people who were not counted by the census for obvious reasons," said local attorney Arturo Corso. "I think people don't realize how many undocumented aliens live and work and go to church right beside them. ... I think most politicians in this area continue to underestimate the importance of immigrants' contributions."

Immigration is a federal issue, but Hall County has recently stepped up its efforts to enforce immigration law within county lines. The Hall County Sheriff's Office works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement to catch illegal immigrants who break the law. Commonly known as 287(g), the program trains local officers to enforce immigration law as authorized through section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.

Hall County is one of just three counties in the state to enact 287(g), along with Cobb and Whitfield counties.

Local law enforcement agencies must ask the federal government for permission to participate in the program.

State Rep. James Mills, R-Gainesville, a big proponent of program, said he worked with Sheriff Steve Cronic to get the program started in Hall County.

"I wrote letters to our congressmen to try to get it implemented," Mills said. "There's only a few counties in Georgia which have the 287(g) program. I think it is a great program."

Mills said he believes immigration will continue to be an important issue facing the state.

"It's been one of the major concerns of the state of Georgia," Mills said. "That's why in Georgia we've passed some of the toughest illegal alien laws in the nation."

Christopher Strickland, who is challenging Mills for his seat in the state senate, said he thinks all laws should be enforced, regardless of who's breaking them.

"There's not a whole lot a state legislator can do on immigration law other than pass these redundant pieces of legislation," Strickland said.

"The bottom line is if you're breaking the law you're breaking the law," he said. "And those laws ought to be enforced. And if in the enforcement of that law you find out you're an illegal alien, then that law has to be enforced. All laws should be enforced with every citizen of our state and every noncitizen of our state. We cannot choose who we prosecute; we should prosecute everyone who breaks the law."
Mills said he believes getting tougher at the border will help keep the nation safe.

"That is a national security issue. We could have someone from the Taliban or anyone else slip into this country. We must secure our borders," Mills said.

But Dave Anderson, editor of Gainesville's Spanish-language newspaper Mexico Lindo, said he believes it is the border with Canada the U.S. needs to be most concerned about, not the Mexican border.

"I worry much more about the northern border than I do the southern border. I think the northern border's wide open ... It just goes on and on and on."

He said if a terrorist was attempting to enter the country unnoticed, it would be easier to do so through Canada.

"If somebody wanted to come into the country to do harm I don't know why they'd come through the southern border," Anderson said. "Why go through all that when you can literally walk across" the Canadian border?

Anderson said he believes immigration reform should secure the borders, but must first tackle what to do about the people who are currently living in the United States illegally.

"I think we've got to do something with people that are here. We're tearing up their families now," Anderson said. "Let's get this over and done with. Let's get these people on track. Let's get them legalized."

The untouchable issue
Though some politicians, like Mills, choose to take very defined positions on immigration, others try to avoid alienating voters by endorsing one side of the issue too strongly.

"It's the untouchable issue right now," Anderson said. "Politicians don't like controversial subjects necessarily, controversial for the people they're hoping will vote for them."

Strickland said politically, immigration is an issue that must be handled very delicately, which is why in such a close election candidates could be shying away from it.

"Nobody wants to come across as being for amnesty, and on the other side of that is nobody wants to come across as being uncaring or unfeeling. It hasn't been that many years ago that we were all immigrants of some type. So if you come across too harsh on that, you look like the unfeeling, uncaring aristocrat. If you come across too lenient, you look like you want to open the borders," Strickland said.

Presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain have both been involved in legislation regarding immigration in congress, but neither has chosen to highlight it as they vie for the presidency.

"I think John McCain has really been mum about his immigration bill. I think he still believes it's necessary but because it's been unpopular in his party he's not been talking about it," Corso said, referring to the bipartisan immigration reform bill McCain introduced to the Senate in 2005 with Sen. Ted Kennedy.

And though immigration has been a top issue in past elections, this year it has had little influence so far. Corso said he does not believe much will happen in the next administration because how many other pressing issues the new president will need to address.

"Unfortunately for honest hardworking immigrant people here who have been standing in decades-long lines hoping for citizenship, that immigration reform is probably not going to happen until the economic crisis is resolved, the Iraq war is ended and health care reform is delivered to the people," Corso said.

What can we expect in the next Congress?
U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, R-Gainesville, said the outcome of the next election will impact what immigration reform we could see in the future.

"One of the clear indicators is Sen. McCain, having been involved in immigration reform measures a year or so ago that were very comprehensive in nature, knows the issue very well and realizes that things need to be done on the immigration front," Deal said. "We haven't seen a lot of interest on the Democrat side. Quite frankly, I don't think we've heard Sen. Obama or any of his people talking about the issue very much."

Deal said he would like to see Congress become more active on the issue, and has sponsored legislation called the Birthright Citizenship Bill that he thinks addresses one of the problems of immigration.

"The current interpretations are being given that if a child is born on American soil that child becomes a citizen immediately, regardless of the legal status of either parent. I think that is a perversion of the Fourteenth Amendment and I have legislation that would correct that and it is gaining support in the Congress. And that is something my constituents are very interested in," Deal said.

He acknowledges that immigration is a complex issue with no simple solutions, but thinks the best way to tackle it is one piece at a time.

"The first starting point has to be securing the border. The question of which comes first, most people would tell you let's deal with the illegal immigration and then we can deal with any problems in the legal immigration system, and I think everybody acknowledges there certainly are some," Deal said.

He thinks bills like McCain's comprehensive immigration reform bill did not get passed because they tried to tackle too many issues at once.

"Do we have to deal with it in one consolidated mega bill, in which we try to encompass all of these issues in one legislative package? That's what the Senate tried to do a year or so ago," Deal said. "I think a simpler way to do it is to dissect it. To deal with the individual components, to prioritize what those components are."



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