Posted on October 15, 2004

Candidates Evade Immigration Issue

Gabriela Rico, Statesman Journal (Salem), Oct. 13

Every day, thousands of people illegally cross into the United States from Mexico.

Most are poor people, seeking a better life and prepared to engage in a bizarre cat-and-mouse game with the U.S. government in their quest to get here and live undetected.

But there also are those with sinister motives: criminal intentions and ties to violent crime or organized drug rings.

Some make it, others get caught, and hundreds die trying to complete the journey.

You would think the topic would be ripe for debate this year.

You would be wrong.

Fearing a backlash from a public divided about illegal immigration, President Bush and his Democratic challenger for the presidency, Sen. John Kerry, largely have ignored the problem.

“For different reasons, it’s a potentially toxic subject,” said Bill Lunch, a political science professor at Oregon State University and a political analyst for Oregon Public Broadcasting.

But that could change tonight when the candidates meet for their third and final debate in Arizona — a state plagued by the effects of inaction regarding immigration reform.

There have been shootouts along Arizona highways between rival smuggling organizations battling for possession of their “human cargo.”

Rollover accidents resulting from cars being weighed down with dozens of people reached record numbers this summer, and unidentified bodies stacked up in the coroner’s office, awaiting a taxpayer-funded autopsy, and sometimes burial.

Earlier this year, President Bush announced a proposal for addressing illegal immigration, which, in essence, would give people temporary legal status for three years when an employer can’t find a U.S. citizen to do the job.

Sen. Kerry, as outlined in his “Plan for America,” would take it a step further and offer a path to citizenship for those who have worked in the United States for at least five years, paid taxes and stayed out of trouble with the law.

The proposals might satisfy some, but voters with strong convictions about controlling immigration disagree and say they are without a mainstream party candidate on Nov. 2.

Some are floating their own write-in candidates to send a message.

In an election where polls show the candidates in a dead heat, could the choice for “candidate other” makes a significant impact?

“I think ‘other’ will do well,” said Aumsville resident David C. Hamilton, a Libertarian.

The retired teacher, who supported President Bush in 2000, is among a group of Oregonians concerned about the increasing number of illegal immigrants, predominantly from Mexico, who head to the state each year.

Oregon was home to about 90,000 illegal immigrants in 2000, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). That’s almost triple the previous government estimate in 1996 and 333 percent higher than the estimate for 1990, giving Oregon the 14th largest illegal immigrant population in the country, according to FAIR.

“I don’t see this as a trivial matter,” Hamilton said. “This is not a matter of indifference to me.”

His vote will go to Michael A. Peroutka, the Constitution Party candidate.

“I’m not voting for either of the major candidates,” said Jerry Ritter, a Springfield Republican.

Instead, he will cast a vote for Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, who co-founded Team America, an immigration reform political action committee.

“The issue is one of national security, quality of life and dwindling resources,” said Ritter, a retired technical specialist at a Fortune 500 company.

Still undecided about who he will support for president, Peter Dane, an electronics technician, said he is disappointed that illegal immigration is not a major topic of debate.

“I’d hoped that there would be more of a dialogue on this issue,” said the Democrat, who lives just outside of Salem in Marion County. “It’s a primary issue and I wish the candidates would address it.”

These Oregonians are not alone.

Opinion polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Americans want to see the immigration system fixed.

Their position is simple: Let them in or keep them out. Both sides are equally anxious to see some action taken.

So far, increased border enforcement has been the federal government’s main response.

In March, the Department of Homeland Security launched its most intense effort to control the U.S.-Mexico border.

Millions of dollars were spent on electronic ground sensors, unmanned aerial vehicles, special air operations and more than 2,000 Border Patrol agents along the busiest and deadliest stretch of the Arizona-Sonora desert.

A total of 1,158,802 people were caught by the U.S. Border Patrol trying to get into the United States during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, said Border Patrol spokeswoman Gloria Chavez.

Of those, 75,371 were from countries other than Mexico.

Robert Bonner, commissioner of Customs and Border Protection said that between Oct. 1, 2003 and Aug. 31, the arrest of illegal immigrants by U.S. Border Patrol agents included: 138 homicide suspects; 67 kidnapping suspects; 226 sexual assault suspects; 431 robbery suspects; 2,342 suspects for assaults of other types; and 4,801 involved with dangerous narcotics.

Federal agents also tallied 325 deaths along the southwest border, said Chavez.

In an attempt to get illegal immigrants away from the border and reduce the temptation of crossing again, the federal government spent $15.1 million to fly Mexicans home in a repatriation program that operated for about three months.

Despite the volume of human traffic, the dollars spent and the resulting misery, both Bush and Kerry remain silent.

“Both (candidates) have elements in their coalition that are at odds with each other,” Lunch said.

The president must juggle the desire of businesses that want cheap labor and “groups who resent changes that have occurred in what used to be the racial and ethnic status quo,” Lunch said.

Kerry, meanwhile, is equally conflicted.

Democrats traditionally have represented disenfranchised factions of society and too much emphasis on immigration could be seen as favoring Hispanics.

“It makes the discussion of immigration rather difficult,” he said. “If either one raises it, it’s open season on the topic . . . and it represents a breach in the coalition.”

Nevertheless, Lunch doubts that angered Bush supporters will change the outcome of the election with their anybody-but-Bush-or-Kerry vote.

Lunch thinks it’s a small number of voters who are so concerned about illegal immigration that they will vote for an outside candidate.

“It’s more of a problem for Bush,” Lunch said of the lost vote. “But, it’s not a major problem for either one of them.”