Hot Topic: Illegal Immigration

If there is one thing that the thousands of protesters who hit the streets Friday for May Day demonstrations on immigration policy can agree on, it's this: The current system isn't working.

In Los Angeles, where at least seven marches were scheduled, immigrant advocates are calling for illegal immigrants to be given legal status, as well as the end of raids and deportations that can separate families, the Los Angeles Times reports. Though turnout at the May Day protests is significantly down from previous years – in part because of N1N1 flu concerns – thousands came out to protest for immigrant rights in Houston, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, Seattle and other cities.

In Orange County, meanwhile, a small group of anti-illegal immigration activists marked the occasion with a counter-protest that reflects the beliefs of those who strongly oppose granting citizenship to illegal immigrants. (On some conservative blogs, there have also been complaints that illegal immigrants are responsible for bringing H1N1 into the U.S.A.)

"Amnesty rewards lawbreakers who crashed the border," Evelyn Miller told the Orange County Register.

Added Minuteman Project member Raymond Herrera: "We're protesting the (Mexican) government for their lack of being able to provide for their people. We will not tolerate amnesty on American soil."

At his 100th day press conference Wednesday, President Obama called the current immigration system "broken." He said that America cannot continue with it.

"It's not good for anybody," he said. "It's not good for American workers. It's dangerous for Mexican would-be workers who are trying to cross a dangerous border. It is putting a strain on border communities who oftentimes have to deal with a host of undocumented workers, and it keeps those undocumented workers in the shadows, which means they can be exploited at the same time as they're depressing U.S. wages."

(AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
But the president also somewhat backed off his campaign call for swift reform. He said he expects immigration reform this year and that "I'm going to be moving it as quickly as I can," but he added that "I don't have control of the legislative calendar" and that he has "been accused of doing too much."

The president said that he wanted to convene a working group to look at the issue and "lay the groundwork for legislation."

In the Senate, meanwhile, the Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Immigration, Border Security and Citizenship yesterday had the first day of a hearing titled, "Comprehensive Immigration Reform in 2009: Can We Do It and How?" It is expected to be, as the Boston Globe puts it, a "hard slog."

There are a range of issues to be considered when it comes to immigration reform, too many, in fact, to adequately summarize here. The debate touches on a number of fundamental topics, among them jobs, national security, civil rights and our national identity – which goes a long way toward explaining why it can become so heated.

Well, that and the fact that Americans are so clearly split: In the most recent CBS News/New York Times poll, 44 percent said illegal immigrations currently working in the U.S. should be allowed to stay and apply for citizenship. Twenty-one percent said they should stay as guest workers. And 30 percent said they should be forced to leave the country.

The Obama administration Thursday offered some sign as to its short-term intentions when the Department of Homeland Security announced new guidelines that shifting enforcement priorities from the illegal immigrants themselves to their employers. Notes the L.A. Times:
The federal guidelines instruct agents to conduct "carefully planned criminal investigations" of employers and to look for evidence that they may be involved in smuggling or visa fraud. Agents are directed to get indictments or search warrants before arresting employees.

Homeland Security officials said the goal was to reduce unfair competition and stem the flow of illegal crossers by targeting the magnet: jobs.

Raids during the Bush administration were far more likely to result in the arrest of workers than employers. The new theory seems to be that supply will decrease if employers are more aggressively punished for incentivizing workers to come to the U.S. illegally, which will result in a drop in illegal immigration levels without higher spending on border security.
There are those who would argue that illegal immigrants are exactly what the country needs, however: On Thursday, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan said they make a "significant" contribution to the economy, as Bloomberg reports.

Appearing before the Senate subcommittee, he said they provide a "safety valve" that lessens the impact of fluctuating demand for workers. At the same hearing, California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said her state's agricultural sector is facing a worker shortage that could cost it $3.3 billion this year.

"We'd all be delighted to have Americans do the work. But the fact is they won't," said Feinstein. "We need a program that will get a stable and continuing supply of labor."

Early in the Republican presidential primary process, immigration was a major focus of debate; the field included two candidates, Tom Tancredo and Duncan Hunter, whose platforms were largely built around their strong opposition to illegal immigration.

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
Sen. John McCain, the eventual nominee, engaged in something of a delectate dance around the issue for fear of (a) alienating the Tancredo-types with his relatively moderate position and/or (b) losing the support of Hispanic voters by catering to them. He eventually said his first priority was to "secure the borders."

(Interestingly, McCain is facing a 2010 primary challenge in Arizona from Minuteman founder Chris Simcox, who says McCain, because of his immigration policy, "is fully responsible for the deaths along our borders, the raging violence in Mexico and the violence that we have in the streets of U.S. cities from border to border, coast to coast.")

Groups who strongly oppose so-called "amnesty" for illegal immigrants say the United States is effectively rewarding lawbreakers; they also, Bloomberg notes, complain "that low-skilled immigrant workers suppress wages for U.S. workers and burden local governments with demands for services." (Greenspan says the benefits far outweigh any such costs.)

Advocates for illegal immigrants, meanwhile, cast immigration reform as a civil rights issue, one that should be felt by "anybody who has felt a pinch of injustice," as one protester said Friday. Said one undocumented pushcart ice cream vendor in Newark: "We want to work, we want to get papers, we want the president to help us."

Where do you stand? Do you back citizenship, guest worker status, or expulsion for illegal immigrants now in the United States? Do you think that border security should be overhauled – and if so, what should be done? And what do you think needs to be done in order to get the Unites States to where it needs to be in the issue? Let us know in the poll below, and in comments.