Election 2010: Illegal immigration a key and dividing national issue


Illegal immigration is the focus of debate heading into the November congressional elections.

A big reason for the renewed attention is the passage in April of Arizona immigration enforcement law, which empowers Arizona’s state and local law enforcement personnel to enfore existing federal immigration laws. Arizona’s law is bein challenged in federal court by the Obama administration. Other states are watching the legal battle as they consider adopting similar laws empoering them to enforce existing federal immigration laws.

Supporters and opponents of Arizona’s law, which makes it a state crime to be in the United States illegally, say it underscores the failure of the federal government to enforce the nation’s immigration laws.

The debate

What should be done about illegal immigrants already here?

In the Senate, Democratic leaders introduced a plan in April, supported by President Barack Obama, that would increase border security, overhaul the visa system, install a biometric employment verification system to ensure that employers hire legal workers, and establish a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

That last point generates the most controversy. Democratic senators and the president have proposed that illegal immigrants could become legal residents and citizens only if they come forward, register with the federal government, pay a fine and any back taxes, undergo a security check and get in line behind the people who have already applied to come here legally. While waiting, they would be allowed to remain in the United States.

Most Republicans and anti-illegal-immigration groups say this amounts to amnesty and rewards people who broke the law to come here. They also say it will encourage more immigrants to enter the U.S. illegally.

What has been done to strengthen border security?

Opponents of the Democrats’ reform plans say they won’t consider allowing illegal immigrants to become legal residents until more is done to secure the border and fight the Mexican drug cartels that smuggle narcotics and people into the United States.

The Obama administration began deploying about 1,200 National Guard troops to the 2,000-mile border in early August. Critics say that is not enough. Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., a past leader on immigration reform, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the minority whip, have proposed sending 6,000 National Guard troops to the border.

Meanwhile, the Senate in August approved a request by the Obama administration for $600 million in funding for 1,000 new Border Patrol agents, 250 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, unmanned Predator drones to patrol the U.S. side of the border, and other border security measures.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano said that spending will add to an unprecedented effort by the federal government to secure the border. The Border Patrol is better staffed than at any time in its 85-year history, with the number of agents doubling from about 10,000 in 2004 to more than 20,000 today. Napolitano also cites statistics showing that the Obama administration has doubled the number of people assigned to Border Enforcement Security Task Forces, tripled the number of ICE intelligence analysts assigned to the Southwest border, and begun screening all southbound rail shipments for illegal weapons, drugs and cash.

Will reform pass?

Few observers believe that Congress will pass an overhaul of the nation’s immigration system during an election year. Instead, it is more likely that Congress may pass piecemeal legislation such as the DREAM Act, which would allow illegal immigrant children to stay in the U.S. and become legal residents if they attend college or serve in the U.S. military.

Key statistics

Number of estimated illegal immigrants in the United States: 10.8 million

Number of illegal immigrants in 2007: 11.8 million

Length of the U.S.-Mexico border: nearly 2,000 miles, along California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas