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August 22, 08

NEWS / Immigration Remains Important Campaign Issue in United States

By Lea Terhune
Staff Writer

Washington -- The economy may top pollsters’ lists of critical 2008 U.S. election campaign issues, but immigration is not far behind. In surveys, it consistently ranks among the top 10 voter concerns.

Where the presumed presidential candidates, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain, stand on immigration could determine who wins the 2008 election -- partly because many Hispanics, the largest minority group in the United States, are expected to go to the polls.

“There isn’t a whole lot of daylight between the candidates on the immigration issue. They are both supportive of major overhauls of our immigration system that include expanding channels for legal immigration and providing a pathway for those who are here to get on the legal side of the ledger,” said Doug Rivlin, communications director for National Immigration Forum. “Those are the key things that immigrant Latino or other voters are looking for,” he told America.gov.

The forum is a nonpartisan group that describes itself as an advocate for “public policies that welcome immigrants and refugees and are fair to and supportive of newcomers” to the United States.

The United States has immigrant populations from Africa and Asia, but Hispanics could tip states with many Electoral College votes toward their candidate. (See “Obama, McCain Compete in Wooing Hispanic Voters.”)

“The Asian vote is significant in certain areas but less decisive nationally because the numbers aren’t there. The Latino vote is important nationally and very important in what people consider key states that could turn the election,” Rivlin said, naming potential swing state Florida and some Western states.

Obama has risen in Hispanic estimation, according to a survey released in July by the Pew Hispanic Center. The report said registered Hispanic voters surveyed nationwide support Obama over McCain by 66 percent to 23 percent.

About 15 percent of the U.S. population is Hispanic, but only 9 percent of U.S. voters are Hispanic, according to Pew. California, with the largest Hispanic population, has 28 percent of the U.S. Hispanic electorate.

Pew also identified a significant shift by Hispanic voters from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party -- and said Hispanic voter turnout is increasing.
Rivlin said that anti-immigration rhetoric has galvanized immigrant voters, bringing them to the streets in protest and to the polling booth. “The pressure has been on and the incentive is there to be part of the electoral process as a means of self-defense, quite frankly … from all across the immigrant spectrum.”

McCain distanced himself from an earlier, broader pro-immigration stance in a bid to lure Republican Party conservatives. He now focuses on border security and deportation of illegal immigrants. “It would be among my highest priorities to secure our borders first, and only after we achieved widespread consensus that our borders are secure, would we address other aspects of the problem,” he told the Conservative Political Action Conference in early 2008.

Obama’s call for illegal immigrants to be brought “out of the shadows” and toward citizenship might be winning the confidence of Hispanic voters. He is also a son of an immigrant, and has confronted challenges in his life similar to those immigrants face. Less enthusiastic about border fencing than McCain, Obama wants to “consult with local communities” to determine the best approach.

“It’s been a tougher road for Mr. McCain, because the most vocal opponents to legal immigration are in his party,” Rivlin said. Although McCain has ”flirted with pandering to the explicitly anti-immigration folks in his party, he has also been clear he’s for comprehensive immigration reform. It’s a tough tightrope that he has to walk.”


Immigration is a divisive issue. A July Gallup Poll reported 39 percent of Americans think immigration should be kept at its present level, while 39 percent favor a decrease. Only 18 percent wanted an increase. Several earlier polls, including a CNN and an AP-Ipsos poll showed Americans split nearly evenly over whether to build a fence along the Mexican border to deter illegal immigration.

Some say illegal immigrants take jobs and health care away from American citizens, contribute to crime and burden the taxpayer. Others say low-skilled workers, as illegal immigrants often are, support the economy by doing jobs that most American citizens don’t want to do and they often pay taxes.

Many voters -- and the two presidential candidates -- want better law enforcement and ways to allow immigrants to work legally where they are most needed.

Immigrants, like most Americans, want jobs, health care and education. “They have the same concerns as everyone else,” Rivlin said, adding Latinos often oppose the Iraq war. “Immigrant, African-American and Latino communities, and rural communities are over-represented in the war.”

“Immigration bureaucracy is broken,” declares the Obama campaign Web site. “John McCain believes America’s immigration system is broken,” McCain’s site echoes.

The need to overhaul immigration policies is widely acknowledged. The responsibility for leading that reform could be determined by immigrant and ethnic “swing” voters in November.



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