Immigration Becomes Hot-Button Issue

Wednesday, 12 May 2010 04:47 PM

By Matt Towery

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No one has been more startled than this pollster that immigration has burst onto the scene as an issue more significant to most Americans than healthcare, financial bailouts, and the economy.

So maybe I'm a better pollster than prognosticator. But I do have enough horse sense to trace the trajectory of a new issue once it gets to be headline news.

Arizona's new illegal-immigration law requires that state residents have on their persons proof of legal residency — but now they can only be asked for this proof under carefully restricted circumstances.

The law immediately ignited a firestorm of passionate opposition. Most critics hailed from states besides Arizona that have large illegal populations — or from Americans who don't believe it's so important to determine people's legal status in the country. Actual and threatened boycotts against Arizona started to make the news.

Based on a series of recent public opinion polls, it appears to me that all this noisy outrage over the Arizona law is backfiring against opponents of the law. Consensus public opinion seems to be shifting in favor of a strict interpretation of what constitutes legal residency in the United States, and for stricter enforcement of the relevant laws.

It's my firm belief that if someone is in America illegally, they should be treated as such and deported. I also see cases that fall into a grayer area, such as that of a 21-year-old who is nearing graduation at a Georgia university. Through no choice of her own, she came to this country when she was 16. Now she is fighting to keep from being deported, at least until she finishes school.

Somewhere on the way to getting the immigration situation solved there must be room for compassion and empathy for our fellow humans of all backgrounds, ethnicities, and circumstances. But it's important to note that this column isn't primarily about my opinions.

Here is a cold, hard fact for those who seek to oppose the Arizona immigration law through boycotts of the state or its products, services, or even its sports teams: You're cooked. Your indignation is only hardening the resolve of those who've adopted a zero-tolerance stance toward people living here illegally.

Nor are many Americans being swayed by media stories, including a recent network TV segment, that seem to suggest the U.S. is deliberately, or at least negligently, making it dangerous for Mexicans to cross the border illegally.

Again, the results of public opinion polls are clear. Americans are frustrated with the nation's high unemployment rate. Mostly low-paying jobs that, a few years ago, they were content to leave to illegal residents and others, they now feel possessive of.

Think of the construction industry. When the economy was robust for so long, there appeared to be a belief across the country that denying these low-paying jobs to illegals might put a brake on the good times by unnecessarily driving up labor costs. Such reasoning was a poorly hidden justification for "compromise" legislation that winked at illegal immigration.

Now, many local governments are fighting for revenue. Voters have little interest in supporting a workforce of illegal immigrants. And for many, there is no gray area or willingness to consider exceptions such as the one I noted above.

Politicians take note: Tea party fervor could have a synergistic effect with anti-immigration sentiment in stoking a huge voter turnout this year, both in contested primaries — especially Republican ones — and in November.

Immigration debate also provides context to otherwise anecdotal events. The Web is rife with outraged discussion about the high school students in California who were sent home for wearing clothes decorated with American flags on Cinco de Mayo.

Now throw in the boycotts of Arizona by various governments and organizations. Many Americans are not only annoyed, but also puzzled, by these actions. To them, the Arizona law is common sense.

Now, illegal immigration may move from being just another news story to a dominant political theme. America's mood in this election year is getting surly. We shall see.


Matt Towery is author of the new book, "Paranoid Nation: The Real Story of the 2008 Fight for the Presidency." He heads the polling and political information firm InsiderAdvantage.

© Creators Syndicate Inc.

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