Immigrants hear mixed messages

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Immigration ties politicians in knots.

Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama agree on the end goal - granting citizenship to millions of illegal immigrants - yet disagree about how to get there.

The public is even more conflicted, telling pollsters that they don’t want to reward those who entered the U.S. illegally and don’t want an increase in immigration, but do want a solution to the problem and are open to giving illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.

“Both presidential candidates are going to want to do it, and both are going to be challenged to get enough Republican support. But McCain’s got an added challenge - he’s going to be challenged to get enough Democratic support,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, which pushes for a broad agreement that backers call comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship.

An effort to solve all of the immigration problems at once collapsed in the Senate last year, defeated by a majority filibuster. Mr. Sharry and others who follow the issue say the next president will have to work to form a coalition that can do better.

Both top candidates are promising to try.

“I would make my first priority comprehensive immigration reform. We will pick up where we left off,” Mr. McCain, a senator from Arizona with a long history of working on the issue, told Univision’s Al Punto program this weekend.

Immigration is an emotional issue that goes to competing beliefs that the United States is a nation of immigrants, but also a nation of laws. Although it is a cliche, that view is still seen as a fundamental tenet.

Beneath the cover of that ambiguity, illegal immigration has exploded. The issue is another part of unfinished business that President Bush will leave to his successor.

The estimated population of illegal immigrants has grown from 8.4 million in 2000 to nearly 12 million this year, though new reports by both the Center for Immigration Studies and the Pew Hispanic Center indicate that the number has declined in the past year.

Pew did not elaborate as to why, but the Center for Immigration Studies said the timing of the drop suggests stepped-up enforcement at both the federal and local levels has helped. That boosts the argument of those who say illegal immigration can be controlled by attrition - tougher enforcement coupled with a no-amnesty policy.

Enforcement increased after Mr. Bush, Mr. McCain and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, failed the past two years to pass a bill combining border security, citizenship rights for illegal immigrants and a guest-worker program for future foreign workers.

Congress called for border fencing, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff began a series of high-profile workplace raids, and some states and localities took the lead in requiring employers to check employees’ eligibility to work. Some localities also signed agreements with immigration authorities to allow their own police to enforce immigration laws.

The issue gained traction in the presidential primaries. Mr. McCain, considered the most liberal of Republican candidates on the issue, said immigration nearly cost him the nomination. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign suffered after she changed her position on whether illegal immigrants should be allowed to obtain driver’s licenses in New York.

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