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Immigrants hear mixed messages

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'08 ISSUES:

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.

But, in the general election, the issue has all but disappeared.

Both major presidential candidates regularly raise the immigration issue when speaking to Hispanic audiences and have run brutal and misleading television commercials accusing the other of trying to scuttle comprehensive reform. But to English-speaking audiences, the issue is rarely mentioned and had not been raised in the first two presidential debates.

The two men have nearly identical voting records on immigration.

Both voted for the Secure Fence Act to build fencing on 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border, and both voted for the 2006 and 2007 immigration bills.

But Mr. Obama has been consistent in his rhetoric, while Mr. McCain has not. He tells conservative audiences that his priority is border security but told Univision that it's a broad legalization bill.

Mr. Obama has criticized Mr. McCain for the inconsistency.

"It's time for a president who won't walk away from something as important as comprehensive reform when it becomes politically unpopular," Mr. Obama told the National Council of La Raza in July.

The two differ most on security, though.

Mr. Obama says border security must not be legislated in isolation but must be packaged with a broad bill. Hispanic rights groups fear that if security is done in isolation, they won't gain support for their priorities, such as a path to citizenship.

Mr. Obama also criticizes Homeland Security's stepped-up enforcement, calling raids ineffective.

In his recent Univision interview, Mr. McCain said he would not halt immigration raids.

"I can't tell you that we should stop rounding up people who have come to this country illegally, but I can tell you we will treat the whole issue with a humane and compassionate fashion," he said.

He has also said he won't tackle broader immigration, including legalization, until he proves to voters that the borders are secure. He says he will rely on border-state governors to certify security before proceeding.

Those who see legalization as amnesty fret that they have no choices in the election, while advocates of comprehensive reform disagree over who's more likely to get legislation enacted.

"McCain's border-security-first commitment, which he emphasized in the primaries, and he still says, though he couples with the need for comprehensive immigration reform, I think it means, to be honest, it's going to be much harder to get immigration reform enacted," Mr. Sharry said. "If you're interested in comprehensive immigration reform, Obama has a clear path to it sooner and, in the meantime, will not continue the Chertoff policies of raids."

But Immigration Daily, an e-mail newsletter from Immigration Law Weekly, wants to see a legalization bill and said that probably means electing Mr. McCain.

"This is the issue on which he is most likely to stab his party's anti-immigrationist wing in the back both in his political interests and due to his own convictions (Mr. McCain had to fight his party's anti-immigrationists tooth and nail during the Republican primaries). We expect to see almost all of the original McCain-Kennedy bill become law during the first six months of a McCain presidency," the newsletter publishers said.

"The combination of a powerful Democratic majority in Congress with Mr. McCain as president offers the best hope for speedily obtaining desperately needed immigration benefits."

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