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Friday, March 31, 2006

Most Americans back clampdown on illegals

By Stephanie Griffith

MOST Americans support a clampdown on illegal immigration, US political observers say, despite fervent protests across the United States this week for less restrictive policies.

Over the past several days a vocal cross-section of immigrants’ rights supporters demonstrated for a gentler US policy—most notably in Los Angeles, which saw a half-million protesters on the streets over the weekend.

But opinion polling on the issue shows the protesters to be at odds with most Americans, who favor restricting new immigration and booting out undocumented workers already here.

“The polls I saw were lined up like dominoes,” said John Keeley, a spokesman for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which describes itself as having a “pro-immigrant, low-immigration vision.”

Protests in recent weeks were spurred by a bill approved by the House of Representatives, which would criminalize undocumented immigration and install a fence along America’s southern border with Mexico, but Keeley said that legislation, by and large, “reflects the views of American voters.”

Alternative legislation to be considered on the floor of the US Senate this week, would, like a proposal by US President George W. Bush, pave the way for many undocumented workers to eventually obtain US citizenship. Such a move “is absolutely out of step with mainstream America,” according to Keeley.

Experts cite surveys such as a poll this month by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal that found 56 percent of respondents opposed granting temporary worker status to illegal immigrants.

Another national survey, by Connecticut’s Quinnipiac University Polling Institute, had similar findings, with 62 percent of those polled last month opposed to easing the path to citizenship for illegal immigrants, against 32 percent who supported the idea.

And in immigrant-rich California, 73 percent of respondents earlier this year said they are concerned about illegal immigration, with 43 percent saying they are “extremely concerned.”

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that the number of illegal immigrants in the United States has grown by nearly 50 percent in the last six years, to nearly 12 million now from 8.4 million in 2000, with more than half the unauthorized residents coming from Mexico.

Longtime Washington political observer Charlie Cook, publisher of the Cook Political Report, told NBC television this week that Americans’ feelings on the issue run deeper than it would appear.

“It’s a funny issue. If you ask people what’s the most important problem facing the country, its a small single-digit issue,” he told NBC’s Meet the Press program Sunday.

“But then once you raise it, boy, emotions run high.”

The reasons for Americans’ growing concerns are varied, experts said, but they are driven in part by growing fears of terrorism and a diminishing tolerance for things foreign.

“Nine-eleven [the September 11, 2001, terror attacks] changed a lot of people’s feelings about laissez-faire entry into the country,” Keeley said.

“You just can’t have unfettered access to the country anymore.”

Business groups are nervous about the economic effect of proposed punitive measures against undocumented workers while the liberal and generally immigrant-friendly union confederation, the AFL-CIO, called this month for an immigration policy that focuses on raising living standards overseas.

The group, which sees underprivileged newcomers to America as part of its future membership base, also strongly opposed the sort of guest worker program advocated this week by Bush.

“We’ve seen employers turn tens of thousands of permanent, well-paying jobs in the United States into temporary jobs through the use of various guest worker programs.

“Any viable solution to this crisis must address the reasons why people are coming to the US,” the group said in a statement.

Keeley said the new fervor in the immigration debate also reflects the reality that Americans are meeting many immigrants in every day life and in their own communities.

“We may have reached a tipping point,” he said.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago it was seen as a California problem, or a Southern Texas problem. Now it’s coast to coast.”