Immigration Fears Are Back on the Front Burner for More Americans

Americans are increasingly worried about immigration, a new poll shows, but it remains to be seen how their rising anxiety will affect the midterm elections.

According to a Gallup poll conducted between May 3 and May 6, 10% of Americans viewed immigration as the most important problem facing the country today, up from just 2% in April. Though the big news was that the economy in general jumped ahead of unemployment to top the problems list, Gallup notes that this is the first time immigration has shown a double-digit reading since January 2008. Not surprisingly, most of the concern about illegal immigration came from respondents in Western states.

These poll results come as the debate over Arizona's recently enacted immigration law heats up. The law, which allows police to ask people they suspect of being in the U.S. illegally for proof of their immigration status, has been denounced by critics as being both impractical and unconstitutional.

Boycott Arizona movements have sprung up, and Major League Baseball is being urged to relocate next year's All-Star Game out of the state. Officials estimate that boycotts spurred by the law could cost Phoenix $90 million or more in revenue. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce recently argued that boycotts are a bad idea because they would punish workers for the actions of the state legislature.

Rising Political Heat

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who's facing a tough reelection bid, has made immigration reform a top priority, and it's being used against him politically. In TV ads, his Republican opponent, Danny Tarkanian, called Reid's immigration reform bill "nothing more than a bailout for those who break the rules," reports The Las Vegas Review-Journal. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce was also critical.

Of course, the issue is paramount in the closely watched race in Arizona between incumbent GOP Sen. John McCain and his primary challenger. A recent campaign ad for the veteran senator calls for the completion of the border fence, a project that McCain had criticized for years.

Though the conservative media may say otherwise, most people are not afraid of illegal immigrants, says Martine Apodaca, director of communications for the National Immigration Forum, which advocates for immigrant rights. "Americans are anxious about the slow pace of the economic recovery," he says. "I don't think that Americans are anti-immigrant. . . . The fact of the matter is that the economy is going to be the most important issue in the 2010 election."

While Apodaca argues that immigration is important to many voters, he worries that "demagogues" will try to exploit people's fears about their economic situations by telling them that illegal aliens are to blame for their problems. Republicans, he says, may risk voter backlash unless they tone down their sometimes-virulent rhetoric.

"A Market-Based Immigration System"?

Indeed, no sensible person believes the U.S. can deport the estimated 10 million to 12 million illegal immigrants living here now. Removing that many people would be hugely expensive and fraught with logistical problems. Ironically, many illegal immigrants returned home when the U.S. economy went sour. About the only thing that most observers agree on is that U.S. immigration laws are broken and in badly need of repair.

President Obama recently spoke out against the Arizona law, and said he supported "comprehensive" immigration reform. The ramifications of such reform for the economy as it climbs out of the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression are huge.

"Government regulation, visa restrictions and artificial caps hurt businesses and the markets they serve," according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "That is why we need a market-based immigration system that permits employers to hire, as needed, after every reasonable effort has been made to hire qualified Americans, to help ignite economic growth."

Reaching Out in Both Directions

Though about a dozen state legislators across the country have said they want to introduce laws similar to Arizona's in their states, two high-profile Republican governors, Arnold Schwarzenegger of California and Rick Perry of Texas, have both recently said they would not sign such bills. As the midterm 2010 elections draw closer, the debates about illegal immigration may only intensify as politicians try to woo the votes of Latinos on the one hand and Tea Party conservatives, whose leaders are growing more vocal on the topic, on the other. Clarissa Martinez, director of immigration for the National Council of La Raza, says "bread and butter issues" such as the the economy remain the most important for Latinos who live outside of Arizona.

"[Immigration is] an issue that the community looks at as a proxy for how politicians view the community," says Martinez. "Arizona has brought the discussion more to the national arena. . . .There seems to be a genuine understanding of what needs to be done and a genuine disappointment with the abdication of responsibility by the White House and Congress to address the issue."

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