NEW YORK - A bad economy brews bad moods about immigration. With the United States' unemployment rate hitting 9.6 percent in August, the 16th month in a row above 9 percent and the longest stretch in a quarter century, it is not surprising that immigration has become a contentious issue among Americans.
Few Americans now seem satisfied with the country's immigration issues. There are more than 11 million illegal aliens living in the country today and thousands are crossing the porous southern borders illegally each day.
On the one hand, undocumented aliens have been blamed for the rising problems of drugs and crimes and a drain of social services, particularly in states such as California, Arizona and Texas, where many illegal aliens live.
On the other hand, hi-tech companies feel the immigration policy has limited their ability to hire foreign-born scientists and engineers. With 14.9 million Americans now jobless, many worry that having more immigrants, legal or illegal, coming into the country would take away their jobs.
Much of the anger now has been directed at the perceived inaction by the federal government and Congress. When Arizona, where the illegal immigrant population has swollen in recent years, decided to take things into its own hands by enacting a stringent law on April 23 authorizing police officers to stop anyone they suspected of being in the US illegally, it drew strong protests from many human rights groups but also a majority of support from the American public. Twenty-two states are considering similar legislation against illegal immigration, according to the Americans for Legal Immigration Political Action Committee, a group that advocates stricter immigration enforcement.
The Arizona state law created heated debates about racial profiling. It also caused an exodus of illegal immigrants from Arizona before the law took effect on July 29. US District Judge Susan Bolton finally ordered to block some of the most controversial parts of the law from taking effect on July 28.
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, in the spotlight for signing the law, said recently that she would consider changing part of the law criticized by the judge.
A Pew Center poll conducted in May among 994 adults finds that 73 percent say they approve of requiring people to produce documents verifying their legal status if police ask for them. Two-thirds approve of allowing police to detain anyone who cannot verify their legal status.
The poll also finds that only 25 percent approve of the way President Barack Obama is handling immigration, down from 31 percent last November.
The most inflammable issue that divides the US is how to deal with the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country. President Obama, whose 2008 victory was aided by the support of 67 percent of Hispanic voters, prescribes a passage to citizenship through registration, paying penalties and learning English. But many Americans, especially Republicans, have interpreted his policy as an invitation for more people to cross the border illegally.
The gap is so huge among regions and parties that when Obama spoke passionately about his comprehensive immigration reform and called for support from the Republicans in the Congress during a July 1 speech at the American University in Washington DC, not many in the Congress and among the public seemed to be moved.
Edward Alden at the Council on Foreign Relations said he does not think that either the Democrats or Republicans want to talk about the issue before the mid-term election.
He said he is not optimistic about immigration if the Republicans take over Congress. "It's not a priority issue for them," Alden, author of The Closing of the American Border, told China Daily.
Audrey Singer, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on international migration, said the mood in the US is not a strong anti-immigration sentiment. "The public and elected officials are frustrated with the lack of control at the border and the current immigration policy," she said, adding that the recession is a huge factor in the tension.
Alden, too, believes that calling the situation as strong anti-immigration sentiment would be an overstatement, but "the anti-immigration mood has been growing stronger", he said.
Darrell West, vice-president and director of Governance Studies at Brookings and author of Brain Gain: Rethinking US Immigration Policy, has been an advocate for the introduction of immigrants to benefit the economy and employment. "The US should provide more green cards for international graduate students who wish to stay in the United States. There is bipartisan support for this idea so there is some hope of this proposal being adopted by Congress if members can overcome the inertia in Washington," West told China Daily.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and media mogul Rupert Murdoch have also attacked the US immigration policy regarding international students. "We admit the best and brightest international students into our top universities and then we do not let them stay but kick them out," said Bloomberg at a New York forum.
To fend off public dissent at his ability to fix the immigration issue, Obama has been mending fences. He won approval from the Congress last month for a supplemental $600 million to beef up border security. The Obama administration has also deported more illegal immigrants in a year than any of his predecessors. In 2009 alone, a total of 387,790 illegal immigrants were deported, a 5 percent increase over 2008.
While past anti-immigration sentiment in US history has targeted Germans, Italians, Jewish and Chinese, today's target is mostly Latinos, who make up most of the illegal immigrants in the US. But the issue has become increasingly sensitive for politicians since 48 million Latinos make up 15 percent of the US population.
The rapidly growing Latino population, which in a few decades will replace Caucasians as the majority, is likely to force both Democrats and Republicans to pause about the future impact of this group of voters.
The Latino population already makes up 44 percent of the total in New Mexico, 36 percent in California, 36 percent in Texas and 30 percent in Arizona.
It seems that whoever controls Congress and rules the White House, the political battle over immigration is going to be a prolonged one.