Immigration debate heats up

WASHINGTON -- After watching Arizona adopt a controversial new immigration law, Laura Long of North Carolina thinks the federal government should butt out and let other states write similar laws.

"I think other states are going to follow suit," said Long, a member of Triangle Conservatives Unite, a Raleigh group. "States should pick up these laws. Washington should step back."

However, Gaby Pacheco, a South Florida student who came to the United States from Ecuador at age 7, said President Barack Obama and Congress need to step up and enact a comprehensive immigration law to pre-empt other states from developing their own.

"I understand the politics, but we're disappointed because so many people are suffering," Pacheco said.

With the stroke of Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer's pen on April 23, immigration once again moved toward the fore of American political debate.

"It's all that everybody's talking about," Jim Delgado, a Manatee County, Fla., lawyer, said of fellow Latinos. "It's a mixture of despair and anger. They're scared."

Almost 3,000 miles away in Modesto, farmer Paul Wenger sees both sides.

"There are a lot of people resentful of those folks here illegally working, and I understand that," he said. "But I also understand that this country was built on the backs of immigrants, and there is still a place for people who want to work here and go home."

Will Arizona's new get-tough law lead to action in Congress or swing the polls in November? Probably not. But the potential is suddenly, dramatically there.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of advocates for an overhaul of immigration law joined marches across the country to show their frustration at what they say is the glacial pace that Obama and Congress have set in dealing with immigration, which they say created a legal void that Arizona decided to fill on its own.

Senate Democrats on Thursday unveiled a 26-page immigration overhaul proposal including a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants now in the country. It also emphasizes stronger security along the U.S.-Mexican border, in hopes of attracting Republican support.

That measured approach contrasts sharply with the Arizona law. It gives local officials broad power to detain anyone under "reasonable suspicion" of being an illegal immigrant. Opponents fear that it gives authorities license to engage in racial profiling; supporters say that little else has worked and something needs to be done.

Despite all the heat, however, Congress shows little appetite for overhauling immigration law this year.

"There is not a chance that immigration is going to move through the Congress," said House of Representatives Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio. "You cannot do a serious piece of legislation of this size, with this difficulty, in this environment."

Lawmakers from both parties are painfully aware of immigration's political price, with congressional elections only six months away.

"Passing an immigration bill would have consequences," said Evans Witt, chief executive officer of Princeton Survey Research Associates. "Remember, turnout will be down this year, and that tends to help more conservative Republicans."

While some senators are trying to forge a bipartisan immigration bill, House Democrats are in no hurry to confront another divisive issue after making tough votes for the White House on health care, climate control and bailouts of the automobile and financial industries.

"There's a feeling among some (House Democrats) that 'We've fallen on our swords enough; it's not worth it,' " said Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, who thinks that lawmakers should deal with immigration this year. "They're afraid if they take a hard vote and it moves to the Senate, it won't pass there."

That reluctance hasn't gone unnoticed by Obama, who acknowledged Wednesday that "there may not be an appetite immediately to dive into another controversial matter."

Obama wooed Latino voters in 2008 with a campaign promise to revamp immigration laws, but now he, like Congress, is caught between hard-liners and those who seek less harsh alternatives.

Surveys show that most Americans like Arizona's approach to immigration. A Gallup poll found that about 51 percent who'd heard of the new law favored it. About 39 percent opposed it and 11 percent had no opinion.

Among all Americans, Gallup says, 39 percent favor the law, 30 percent oppose it and 31 percent have no opinion or haven't heard about it.

But those numbers mask the depth of emotion in many quarters.

"People are really outraged, and people are going to be showing it. It has en- ergized the community," said Gerardo Dominguez, a cannery union organizer in California's Central Valley and an immigrant-rights activist.

"When they say immigrants, they mean Mexicans. They're not going to be looking for Eastern Europeans," he said.

Another factor complicates the matter: the business community. It generally supports a path to citizenship, and has long clamored for clarification of the law.

In the past two years, the number of North Carolina companies enrolled in E-Verify, which helps employers check the legal status of new hires, has more than tripled to 4,466, the Department of Homeland Security claims.

Gilberto Bergman, the president of Bergman Brothers Staffing of Charlotte, cited that case when he noted that companies no longer can claim that they didn't know they'd hired workers who were using fake IDs.

"When they arrest an HR person, that's a big deal," he said.

Another worry is that Arizona's crackdown could drive workers to other states.

"If there are 450,000 illegal immigrants in Arizona, they are going to head to other states to find work," said Manuel Cunha, the president of the Nisei Farmers League in Fresno, an organization created for Japanese-American farmers that's evolved into a broad-based farmer advocacy group. "And that will create problems for families that are already struggling to survive in agriculture."

The San Joaquin Valley already has double-digit unemployment. Three consecutive dry years have forced farmers to fallow acres and resort to layoffs or reduced hours for hundreds of workers. Cunha worries that an influx of Arizona workers could make a bad situation even worse.

In Washington, talk of a bipartisan solution is rare.

Some Republicans, worried that conservative voters would view support for immigration legislation as granting amnesty, take a secure-the-borders-first stand.

Even Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., once a passionate supporter of a pathway to citizenship for illegal residents, has voiced support for Arizona's new law.

McCain faces a tough primary challenge from former U.S. Rep. J.D. Hayworth, who's opposed immigration legislation that included guest-worker programs.

However, several Republicans fear that a hard line on immigration will further erode its appeal to Latino voters, the fastest-growing voter bloc in the country. Some, such as Gov. Schwarzenegger and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, say that immigration laws such as Arizona's are a mistake.

"I think it creates unintended consequences," Bush said in a statement. "It's difficult for me to imagine how you're going to enforce this law."

Contributing to this story were Marijke Rowland of The Modesto Bee, Susan Ferriss of The Sacramento Bee, Robert Rodriguez of The Fresno Bee and Danielle E. Gaines of the Merced Sun-Star.

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