Immigration looms as presidential campaign issue

Ideas

December 16, 2007|By PAUL WEST | PAUL WEST,WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF

MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa -- The prairie fire ignited by immigration is turning into an inferno, with potentially explosive impact on the 2008 election.

Already, it has become the defining issue in the battle between Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee for first place in Iowa's Jan. 3 presidential caucuses. But while immigration is drawing attention as a Republican issue - driven by attack and response ads on TV - it's not solely a concern of Republican voters.

Immigration is also a worry for a significant, and possibly growing, number of Democrats and independents, too. And that could pose an especially tricky problem for the Democratic nominee, who will almost certainly have to deal with Republican attempts to use immigration as a wedge issue to split off Democratic votes in the fall election.

The other day, when Democratic candidate John Edwards came to Marshalltown, about an hour's drive through the countryside from the capital city of Des Moines, getting the immigration problem fixed was on the minds of some of those who heard his pitch.

"It has taken a lot of our jobs away," says Clyde Knoll, 74, who has lived in this town of 27,000 all his life. "What are you going to do about immigration, to stop all the erosion of our jobs and stuff that's coming into this country?"

Edwards assured the roomful of prospective caucus-goers that he was fully aware of just "how hot and divisive this issue is. I do understand that." Still, the "mess" on "our southern border" can be remedied, he says. Technology, including unmanned drones, more border patrol agents and new fences at strategic spots along the U.S.-Mexico line could help stop illegal entry into this country. The government also needs to crack down on employers who violate the law, he says.

Then he added a final point, one that, he acknowledges, is "a little more controversial - If you want to become an American citizen, you ought to learn to speak English." The nearly all-white audience burst into applause.

As they left the room, Iowa voters confronted a table arrayed with a variety of Edwards campaign literature, one of which omitted his English-before-citizenship message: A stack of full-color brochures, printed on slick magazine paper with text completely in Spanish, promoted "John Edwards para Presidente. Caucuses de Iowa - 3 de enero."

The Spanish-language fliers, aimed at Iowa's small but expanding Latino population, touted his plans to end the war in Iraq, strengthen schools for all children, toughen civil rights enforcement and gain passage in Congress of the DREAM act, which would offer a way for younger illegal immigrants to become U.S. citizens. The brochure also detailed Edwards' immigration plan: strengthen border enforcement, punish employers and devise a path to citizenship that would reunite families kept apart by immigration problems. His proposal to make proficiency in English a requirement for citizenship wasn't mentioned. (The flier did give the Internet address of Edwards' Spanish language Web site, which includes the English-language requirement.)

Once the general election campaign gets under way, it may not be so easy for Democrats to offer selective messages to different audiences on this incendiary issue. And while most of the Republican candidates seem ready, if not eager, to capitalize on anti-immigrant attitudes, the Democratic nominee will have to walk a more nuanced line.

The reason for that balancing act lies in one of the biggest advantages Democrats are thought to enjoy in the '08 election: lopsided support across the country from Hispanic voters, whose influence could be pivotal. These voters are concentrated in a number of states that President Bush carried narrowly in the last election, including New Mexico, Colorado, Nevada and Florida. If Hispanics vote Democratic in large enough numbers next fall, they could bring those states to the Democratic side.

The meeting with Edwards left Knoll dissatisfied with the candidate's answer to his question about immigration. The Democratic voter said that his party's politicians aren't getting nearly tough enough on the problem.

"I'm sorry to say, a lot of them even favor this immigration," Knoll says.

This heartland state might be far from the Mexican border, but the immigration issue has become inflamed in recent years. Politicians of both parties point to a variety of causes, from economic anxieties to racism to the drumbeat from conservative and populist commentators such as CNN's Lou Dobbs.

Here in Marshalltown, where anywhere from 6,000 to 8,000 Mexicans have moved in since the early 1990s, local officials have worked hard to cope with the influx. A raid by the Immigration service at a meatpacking plant last December drew national attention, but some residents say the community has turned a corner in dealing with the strains on local schools and other social problems.

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