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Immigration Debate Resonates Throughout U.S.

May 31, 2007 at 6:35 PM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: This week, members of Congress on recess are trying to gauge popular opinion on the controversial topic of immigration reform. Among its key points, the proposed legislation now before the Senate would provide a path to citizenship for the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the country; create a guest-worker program; and base future immigration decisions more on job skills and education and less on family ties.

Recent opinion polls show that Americans favor changes to the current system but are sharply divided over the benefits of recent immigration and how open the U.S. should be in the future.

We explore attitudes around the country now with Robert Robb, a columnist at the Arizona Republic, and four editorial page editors, Carol Hunter of the Des Moines Register in Iowa, Henrik Rehbinder of La Opinion in Los Angeles, the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspaper, Rachelle Cohen of the Boston Herald, and Cynthia Tucker of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary since we last spoke to her.

So, first, Cynthia, I want to say congratulations to you.

CYNTHIA TUCKER, Atlanta Journal-Constitution: Thank you. Thank you, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me start with you, Cynthia, because you’re in a state that has seen one of the fastest-growing population changes with immigrants coming in. How big an issue is it there? And in what ways does it play out?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: It is a huge issue here. And it has been growing, bubbling up under the surface, for about four or five years here in Georgia. Georgia is a heavily Republican state and, as far as I can tell, most Republicans in Georgia seem to oppose the compromise bill that would put illegal immigrants on the path to citizenship.

I don’t know for sure that most Georgians oppose it, because I haven’t seen any statewide polls, but I would venture a guess that at least a substantial minority of Georgians oppose the bill and that they are certainly making their views heard. Most of the letters to the editor that we have received over the last three months have opposed any form of legalization for the illegal immigrants already here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Robb, in Phoenix this is, of course, not a new issue. How do you see attitudes out there today?

ROBERT ROBB, The Arizona Republic: Well, Arizona is sort of ground zero for the illegal immigration issue. We have the largest concentration of illegal immigrants as a percentage of population of any state in the union.

And the reaction to the Senate compromise bill has been a political explosion among immigration restrictionists in opposition to the legalization measure, which they, of course, call “amnesty.” This has been accentuated by the fact that both of our U.S. senators, our Republican U.S. senators, John McCain and Jon Kyl, were key architects of the compromise. And so that’s been the dominant discussion of the issue, with very little attention paid to the many other provisions in the compromise legislation.

Who is affected by immigration?

Carol Hunter
The Des Moines Register
Iowa has seen a real growth in immigrants, especially in the packing plants, and some towns have become majority immigrant.We've also seen signs of just how white-hot this issue is politically with the visits by presidential candidates.

JEFFREY BROWN: Carol Hunter, I would guess that, in the past, most people wouldn't think of Iowa when they think of immigration, but that has changed in recent years, hasn't it?

CAROL HUNTER, The Des Moines Register: It certainly has. Iowa has seen a real growth in immigrants, especially in the packing plants, and some towns have become majority immigrant.

We've also seen signs of just how white-hot this issue is politically with the visits by presidential candidates. Our editorial board has interviewed about half of the presidential candidates over the past two months, and invariably they talk about how much immigration is brought up as they do their town meetings around the state.

JEFFREY BROWN: Henrik Rehbinder, tell us about how demographic changes are playing into this issue. Who's affected? Who's not? How do you see attitudes changing where you are?

HENRIK REHBINDER, La Opinion: Well, what we have in Los Angeles here is a changing of demographic, with the influx of immigrants that has been going for a long, long time. La Opinion is an 80-year-old paper, which shows it has been almost a century people that are coming from Mexico.

Also, this is an area of transition historically. We have people who have been in the border, crossing the border continuously. What we are seeing now is that the demographics that immigrants and Latinos are moving to other neighborhoods, and in some ways is really affecting the -- you know, sometimes it's creating tensions with African-Americans.

But basically is, you know, any change of demographics, it really creates tensions. But when we see the polls along California, we see that Californians are in favor of going to a legalization for immigrants.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Rachelle Cohen, you had a recent raid on some immigrants in New Bedford. You had Massachusetts, I think, debated legislation about offering in-state tuition to illegal young people, to illegal immigrants. How do the citizens there react to such things, when these kinds of things hit the news?

RACHELLE COHEN, The Boston Herald: Well, the New Bedford raid brought an awful lot of this right to everybody's doorstep and TV station. We could ignore immigration pretty much because we're not a border community. And, quite frankly, if we didn't have a fairly large immigrant population -- legal or illegal -- we'd have no growth at all.

But the sight of children being ripped from their mother's arms was one that really hit home with a lot of people. And so that as a precursor to the involvement, of course, of Senator Kennedy I think has generated a lot of sympathy here.

It's still a community divided. People don't like to see their tax dollars go to illegal immigrants; that's what the whole debate over in-state tuition was about.

On the other hand, they know that they are here, they're living among us, and they're looking for a path to citizenship, and I think largely the community is sympathetic to that notion.

Factors of immigration

Cynthia Tucker
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
I can't help but think that race and culture are enormous parts of this debate... There is some concern -- very legitimate concern, I think -- over tax dollars, over the impact on schools, on hospitals.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cynthia, let's talk about what drives attitudes here. How much of it do you think is about jobs, economics? How much of it is about culture and language? How much is race a factor?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: I can't help but think that race and culture are enormous parts of this debate. The simple fact of the matter is, most of the complaints that we hear from readers, most of the letters to the editor focus on things such as, "They refuse to speak English," "I'm tired of going to an ATM and being asked to press one for Spanish, two for English."

There is some concern -- very legitimate concern, I think -- over tax dollars, over the impact on schools, on hospitals. But I have to tell you, given the rhetoric, and given the fact that I grew up in the Deep South and am used to hearing a certain amount of the same rhetoric aimed at black Americans, I can't help but think that race is a substantial part of this.

And I happen to believe that, if these same illegal immigrants were coming from Germany or Ireland or Italy, we wouldn't have the same inflammatory rhetoric being applied that we are here in Georgia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Robb, what is your answer to that? What attitudes drive this?

ROBERT ROBB: Well, Arizona is a state that has always had a large Latino population and influence, so I think it's driven here primarily by culture and jobs. In the Phoenix metro area in 1990, construction jobs paid above-average wages. Today, they pay primarily below average wages.

We are seeing approximately 15 percent of our students in public schools are English-learners. So I think it's those affects less than the race, because Arizona has a long history of being a biracial community with a large Latino influence.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Carol Hunter, what's your answer to that?

CAROL HUNTER: I think that wages and fear of loss of jobs and lowered wages are a big issue here in Iowa. Many Iowans remember when meat-packing jobs were good jobs, were union jobs that paid $16, $18 an hour. The meat-packing went through a real change in economics in the '80s, and most of those jobs now might pay $10 or $11 an hour. So there are some real issues about fears of losing jobs and lower wages.

There also are strong feelings about rule of law and about tax dollars that go for education and for health care. But I also have to believe that racism and fear of change are all part of some of the attitudes that we see in Iowa, which has been a homogenous state through most of its history.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Henrik Rehbinder, what do you see?

HENRIK REHBINDER: Well, I think that everybody has covered basically all the bases, but I would do emphasis on the cultural changes, in the changes that was previously referred, that people are afraid of changes, but also in the economics.

I think that the country has changed the economic security for a decade or for more. We had the globalization process that affects to the worker in the United States, and this creates fears with the influx of immigrants. So in some way, they are part of this change, but unfortunately they're a sign that they are pointed as the only factor of the change of economics and the insecurity that we have now in the labor market sometimes.

Changing attitudes

Rachelle Cohen
Boston Herald
The face of immigration has changed here. There's a huge number of Brazilian immigrants, much admired, for their work skills and their initiative, and Latino immigrants, who are not as well thought of because of their lack of language skills.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Rachelle Cohen, do you see attitudes having gone through major changes there in New England?

RACHELLE COHEN: Absolutely. We used to have a huge number of illegal Irish immigrants a decade or more ago. They fueled our tourism industry. They served our tourism industry, our nursing homes. And it was sort of our dirty little secret. No one talked about it, because they blended in. Their language skills, obviously, were wonderful, and so it was not an issue; it was not an issue anybody wanted to tackle at that point.

Now, the face of immigration has changed here. There's a huge number of Brazilian immigrants, much admired, actually, for their work skills and their initiative, and Latino immigrants, who are not as well thought of because of their lack of language skills, the fact that they gravitate toward entry-level jobs or under-the-radar-screen jobs, construction, landscaping, that sort of thing, not that they're not needed.

But there is a fear of their exploitation, as there was in the New Bedford factory raid. So there are -- yes, attitudes have changed as the complexion of immigrants has changed.

JEFFREY BROWN: Cynthia, given the change in attitudes, all that you have all said, and given what you see going on in Washington, the debate over the legislation, do you feel there are good prospects for some compromise or something to happen to effect some kind of change at this point?

CYNTHIA TUCKER: Well, I would have said yes to that question as recently as a month and a half ago. Before the recess, before senators -- the two Georgia senators were booed at the state Republican convention earlier this month because they endorsed the compromise bill. Given that members of Congress are now hearing all of this overheated rhetoric from their constituents, I'm not sure what's going to happen.

Next steps in immigration debate

Robert Robb
The Arizona Republic
There's a lot of reasons politically for Democrats to want to resolve this problem while there is a Republican president who will sign whatever bill passes.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Carol Hunter, I wonder -- you said earlier that you are there in ground zero for presidential politics, the campaign underway. Are they being forced to talk about it? Are they talking about it? Are they being pressured by the people in the state to put forward a plan?

CAROL HUNTER: They are. They're being asked about it at every stop. I don't believe they like being asked about it, because they don't have any idea where the questioner is coming from. It doesn't split along typical party lines.

David Yepsen, our political columnist, says that immigration is taking a bigger profile in the caucuses than it ever has been before and that the candidates are kind of running scared on it.

There was some speculation that John McCain, who has long championed some sort of fairly liberal immigration reform, that would have a path to amnesty, there was speculation that he might have to back away from that, because he was getting so much heat in the town meetings he had here in Iowa. So it's very difficult for the candidates to address this issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Robb, what do you see as the prospect, given the public attitudes that we've been talking about? Where do you see the prospects, going forward?

ROBERT ROBB: Well, I'm actually optimistic. There's a lot of reasons politically for Democrats to want to resolve this problem while there is a Republican president who will sign whatever bill passes. If the senate compromise fails, which is the best attempt to try to develop a true bipartisan support, then my guess is you will see a revival of something along the lines of McCain-Kennedy, which passed the Senate with over 60 votes, had, I think, somewhere in the vicinity of 22 Republican votes, to get it done, again at least while it can be at least bipartisan in the sense that you've got a Republican president who signed it.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Robert Robb, Carol Hunter, Henrik Rehbinder, Rachelle Cohen, and Cynthia Tucker, thank you all very much.