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Our Views: Third rail of immigration

Candidates largely avoid topic, but voters still want solution even as flow across border slows

POSTED: November 30, 2008 5:00 a.m.

It might come as a surprise to Barack Obama and John McCain and their handlers to learn that illegal immigration still ranks as one of the top campaign issues in states like Georgia and others where the problem has been most felt.

But you wouldn't know that to follow the presidential campaigns. Neither candidate appears willing to make immigration reform a key topic of discussion while out on the trail.

Perhaps the political minefield that immigration lays before them is too much to cross during a campaign. Still, let's hope the winner on Nov. 4 plans to make it a priority once in office. Otherwise, we'll continue to see what we've seen the last few years: State and local jurisdictions trying to handle the problem themselves with piecemeal laws often designed to run illegal residents underground or out of town, only to become someone else's problem down the road.

Nationwide, some 171 immigration bills became law in 41 states during the first six months of the year. Some targeted renters, others businesses that employ illegal workers, others focused on drivers without valid licenses. Here in Hall County, the sheriff's department was among many using 287(g) statutes to turn undocumented lawbreakers over to federal authorities.

Communities are well within their rights to uphold these laws, even if their enforcement makes some uncomfortable. The bigger problem, though, needs to be addressed at the federal level. Without a national solution, local communities can only react to the symptoms of illegal immigration, not fix the problem.

Such a fix has been hard to come by. Both Obama and McCain favor increased border security and a road to documented status for those already in the U.S., including making those here illegally get in line behind those seeking the legal route. In fact, the differences between their plans really aren't that great.

Yet finding a bipartisan solution to secure our borders and deal with illegal immigrants continues to confound our leaders in Washington. The issue has proven to be another overcharged "third rail" that few have the courage to touch.

A comprehensive bill for border enforcement that included a guest worker plan was favored by the White House and many on both sides of the aisle in Congress, including co-sponsor McCain, in 2006. But hardliners in the House shot down that plan, saying that beefing up borders should be the top priority, while calling any attempt to create a guest worker program "amnesty." Many in the public agreed and let their lawmakers know loud and clear that a stronger presence at the border needed to come first.

McCain heard that reaction, as did Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss, who is up for re-election. Both once favored a comprehensive plan, but now advocate tightening the borders before working toward legal status for migrants.

Meanwhile, the flow of immigrants across the U.S. border has slowed considerably. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center reported this week by the Wall Street Journal estimates that arrival of illegal immigrants from Mexico is down from about 800,000 to around 500,000 a year over a three-year period, to about 11.9 million overall. The study showed that legal immigration was increasing at a higher rate than illegal border crossings.

In addition, the Border Patrol reports a decrease in arrests along the U.S-Mexico border for the second year in a row, down 16 percent from a year ago at one stretch in Arizona and 78 percent lower at another. Also way down are the number of deaths reported from desert crossings at those sites. An increased number of border agents, improved obstacles and high-tech surveillance and an end to "catch and release" practices have helped slow the number of crossings.

But the key cause for the drop in numbers clearly is the slumping U.S. economy and the loss of jobs that lured foreign workers here in the first place. Slowdowns in the housing, construction and landscaping industries likely explain the slowing of the immigration rate in North Georgia and elsewhere.

U.S. Census Bureau figures from last month quoted by the Pew report showed that the income of U.S. households headed by noncitizen foreigners dropped 7.3 percent in 2007 from the previous year, after rising 4.1 percent in 2006. That backs up the theory that economic forces are the leading cause in changing immigrant behavior.

But even as the stream of immigrants slows and some are headed back to their home countries, the nation still has to face the fact that many millions of undocumented residents still live and work among us.

We must find a way to assimilate them into our society sensibly, not through amnesty but with a more accessible process toward attaining legal status. The federal government's approach toward immigration should blend the humane with the practical, taking into account the economic benefits and positive impact of immigrants while factoring in the costs of social services such as schools and health care.

Managing the flow of workers for the number of jobs available is in everyone's best interests. That begins with our leaders in Washington showing the wisdom and foresight to enforce laws that already exist while crafting new plans to deal with the migrant residents already among us.

The United States is a nation of immigrants. Those who have come here in the past from Europe, Asia, Africa and Latin America have made our nation better and stronger as they have become part of the social fabric. We need to be willing to open our minds and hearts to these potential new Americans and encourage a path to legal status, for their sake and ours.



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