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Beverly Hills, California, United States
Eli Kantor is a labor, employment and immigration law attorney. He has been practicing labor, employment and immigration law for more than 36 years. He has been featured in articles about labor, employment and immigration law in the L.A. Times, Business Week.com and Daily Variety. He is a regular columnist for the Daily Journal. Telephone (310)274-8216; eli@elikantorlaw.com. For more information, visit beverlyhillsimmigrationlaw.com and and beverlyhillsemploymentlaw.com


Friday, December 09, 2011

Immigration Becomes Hot Topic in Presidential Race

USA Today: Immigration reform may be going nowhere in Congress, but that hasn't stopped the volatile issue from heating up the Republican presidential primary in surprising ways.

So far, it has severely damaged the once-promising candidacy of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, generated debate over the specter of deadly electric fences at the U.S.-Mexico border, and allowed former House speaker Newt Gingrich to distance himself from the pack by saying some illegal immigrants should be permitted to stay.

Political analysts say the issue has proved powerful despite the general reluctance of politicians to discuss it and the conventional wisdom that most voters are too preoccupied with the nation's economic woes to care much about it.

"It's like gum that gets stuck to your shoe," joked Frank Sharry, executive director of America's Voice, which supports comprehensive immigration reform. "You can't quite get rid of it."

That's due in part to the strong emotion it generates passion that is not captured in most national polls, said Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, which calls for reduced immigration levels.

"If you ask people their top priorities, they're going to say jobs, wages, the economy," Beck said. "But what a lot of poll readers don't understand is that immigration is intertwined with those economic issues for a lot of Americans. That's why it keeps popping up."

When it does come up during debates, candidates have not always been prepared for the reaction their answers generate.

The most dramatic example was Perry, whose poll numbers plunged after he implied that his fellow GOP candidates lacked compassion for opposing the 2001 Texas Dream Act that he signed. The law allows Texas students to pay in-state tuition at Texas colleges even if the students were brought to the United States illegally by their parents.

"If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart," Perry said at a Republican presidential debate in September.

Perry apologized for the remark after being attacked by most of his fellow candidates for supporting taxpayer benefits for illegal immigrants. He said he stands by his support for the Texas law, although he opposes a broader proposal introduced in Congress that offers students a chance to earn legal status. At the same time, he sought to shore up his conservative credentials with an endorsement from controversial Maricopa County, Ariz. Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for targeting immigrants in workplace raids.

"Perry just imploded," said Steven Camarota, director of research at the Center for Immigration Studies, which favors reduced immigration. "His confusing message was that we should educate these folks but then we should not allow them to stay and work. How does that make sense?"

Herman Cain, who withdrew from the Republican primary race amid allegations of marital infidelity, also created a firestorm by calling for an electric fence at the U.S.-Mexico border to kill anyone trying to climb it. He later said he was joking, then said maybe he wasn't.

Most recently, Gingrich has generated headlines by portraying himself as a compassionate conservative who would allow some immigrants who have been in the United States for 25 years or more to become legal residents, although not citizens. He later expanded on the idea to say that he would create local citizens' review boards that could grant legal status to undocumented immigrants who have strong ties to their communities and do not depend on government assistance.

"I'm prepared to take the heat for saying let's be humane in enforcing the law without giving them citizenship, but by finding a way to create legality so they are not separated from their families," Gingrich said in a November presidential debate.

Although his idea has been criticized by advocacy groups on both sides of the immigration debate for affecting too few immigrants, it appears to be playing well with key primary voters. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll asked Iowa Republicans which candidate they trusted most to handle immigration. The biggest block of people 27% said they trusted Gingrich the most. Perry followed with 17 percent, Ron Paul with 13% and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney with 8%. Romney has denounced Gingrich's position as offering amnesty to lawbreakers.

Asked what they think should happen to illegal immigrants who have been here 25 years, paid taxes and obeyed the law, 44% of Iowa Republicans agreed with Gingrich that they should not be deported. Another 27% weren't sure. The remaining 29% said they should be deported, according to the poll, which was conducted Nov. 30-Dec. 4 and has a margin of error of 4 to 6 percentage points.

Gingrich is already looking ahead to the general election race against President Obama and wants to appear moderate on an issue that is important to Latino voters and can sway suburban white women, who are turned off by positions they perceive as mean, said Gary Segura, a political science professor at Stanford University in California.

"For Newt, this helps reinforce the perception that he's the Republican who thinks about solutions, that he's the idea guy," Segura said. "It's also part of a general election strategy to appeal to middle-of-the-road voters and expand outreach to Hispanics."

While immigration has played a larger than expected role in the Republican primary debates, it's hard to say how often it will come up in the general presidential election or in the congressional elections, analysts say.

All of the major Republican presidential candidates oppose Obama's call for comprehensive immigration reform, which would include a pathway to citizenship for many of the nearly 11 million illegal immigrants already living here. Obama believes they should be allowed to earn legal status and citizenship if they come forward, undergo a criminal background check, pay a fine and back taxes, learn English and get in line behind people who have applied to come here legally.

Although Gingrich's plan stops far short of that plan, his views present less of a contrast with Obama's than Romney's, Sharry said.

"Gingrich is changing the game," he said. "In the general election, it's all about the competition for the Hispanic vote. If Gingrich wins (the Republican nomination), Obama is going to have a a harder time than he would if Romney wins."

Although analysts expect Obama to win a majority of Hispanic votes, he could be hurt if that majority is not as sizeable as it was in 2008. That year, Obama won 67% of the Latino vote and Latinos turned out at the polls in record numbers. While Obama remains popular with Hispanics, their enthusiasm for him is not as strong as it was three years ago and that may spell lower turnout, Segura said. Latino voters are considered key in four politically competitive states: Colorado, Florida, Nevada and New Mexico.

"Many Latinos don't know that the Obama administration sued Arizona (to stop it's controversial immigration enforcement law)," said Segura, who also is a principal in the Latino Decisions polling firm. "Many Latinos don't know about the new White House directive on deportation (which focuses on going after immigrants who have committed felonies rather than those who are simply here illegally). The administration's actions only help if the Latino community knows about it. There has been a failure to communicate."

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