America's history is a story of immigration — and of arguments about each wave of newcomers.
The latest wave has been building for a half-century, arriving from the south, mainly Mexico, and is controversial because many of the migrants did not enter the U.S. legally. Twenty years ago, the government estimated these undocumented immigrants numbered 3.4 million. Now estimates hover around 11.2 million — more than the populations of Nebraska, Iowa and Missouri combined.
Illegal immigration from Mexico has slowed in recent years — Pew Hispanic Center researchers this spring estimated a net standstill, with just as many exiting as entering the country — but that still leaves the millions already here. There is consensus the nation should do something about them, but no consensus about what should be done.
That's been demonstrated anew in uproars over a presidential deportation order, which removed the threat of expulsion for many, and a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, which in effect told Arizona and other states hoping to grab some control that Washington remains in charge of immigration. Nearly every element of the topic — its causes, effects, potential solutions and moral underpinnings — is captive to the nation's partisan divide.
THOSE RIGHT OF CENTER SAY
That people here without documentation broke the law by entering the U.S. — something that must not be amnestied or rewarded, lest more be encouraged to follow. The undocumented residents here now impose social and economic burdens on taxpaying Americans — such as by consuming jobs, public education and medical care — and should return to their homelands. An uncontrolled flow of immigrants poses security risks in a post-9/11 world, makes drug trafficking harder to combat, and complicates other national issues, such as addressing energy, the environment, education and debt.
THOSE LEFT OF CENTER SAY
That it's not migrants' fault their poor countries sit next to a rich one whose thirst for drugs fuels violence and chokes the economy in their homelands. Therefore it is difficult to blame people for fleeing one place for the other, legally or not. Forcing all to return home is neither feasible nor humane. Moreover, the undocumented here provide a net benefit: paying taxes, doing jobs Americans don't want and supplying more young working families to a society that without immigration would be graying too rapidly. Controlling immigration makes sense, but so does finding a humane, one-time-only solution to the problem of the undocumented.
ANY COMMON GROUND?
Both sides agree that regardless of immigrants' value to the U.S. historically, no society can expect to cope with unrestricted immigration. Therefore control of borders is necessary, although there are differences over how to achieve it.
Both sides agree that leaving the problem indefinitely unresolved is corrosive to society and to the rule of law, that it does no one good to have some 4 percent of America's residents living in legal limbo, that some solution is overdue.
Both presidential candidates criticize the current immigration system and say Americans need to reach consensus on broad reform.
WHAT ALL THIS MEANS TO ME
Much depends on your own position in life: If you're a low-skilled, low-education worker, the undocumented might be your competition for jobs. Otherwise, their labor is a force helping keep down the costs of goods and services.
Likewise your location matters, because costs and benefits vary state to state, city to city. Overall, economic effects are hotly debated and hard to gauge — it's tough to gather data “on a population with an incentive to keep its status hidden,” as Congress' General Accounting Office puts it — but in surveys most economists say they see a slight net benefit to the economy from illegal immigration.
Beyond that, attitude is everything: Immigration may be the perfect Rorschach test. What do you see in the inkblot? Foreign menace? Strain on the social fabric? Cultural confusion? New vigor? Injustice? Trouble for your political party?
MIDLANDS IN THE SPOTLIGHT
Among cities that have wrestled with the issue is Fremont, Neb., which two years ago adopted a city ordinance patterned after the Arizona law that the U.S. Supreme Court recently curbed. The ordinance, which bars the hiring or harboring of illegal immigrants, is still under challenge in federal courts.
In a bitter fight this past session, Nebraska's Legislature overrode the governor's veto to restore state-funded prenatal care for women, regardless of immigration status.
Iowa's Rep. Steve King, part of a trio of Republicans in Congress dubbed the “Three Amigos” of illegal immigration, is one of the most vocal advocates for cracking down on undocumented residents.
OBAMA AND ROMNEY: WHERE DO THEY STAND?
|THE ARIZONA LAW||Before the U.S. Supreme Court, his administration argued, mostly successfully, that Arizona's immigration crackdown trespassed on federal authority. He calls the immigration system "broken" and says only "a national conversation" can build the consensus needed for reform.||He neither praised nor damned the Supreme Court's ruling. But he has said he would let states like Arizona have their own immigration-enforcement laws because federal efforts fall short. Called the Arizona case proof of an Obama failure to lead on reform.|
|DEPORTATION||Ordered a stop last month to deportation of most people under 30 who entered the U.S. illegally as children — perhaps 800,000 people nationwide; they can work and go to school legally but cannot seek citizenship. In 2011, deportations hit a record high, but he has sought to prioritize illegal immigrants with criminal records, ignoring others.||Calls Obama's deportation order a stopgap, not a long-term solution. Favors "self-deportation": Instead of trying to round up illegal immigrants, block them from working or getting other benefits and they'll be persuaded to leave the country voluntarily, he says.|
|DREAM ACT||Favors the decade-long effort to pass a law granting permanent residency — and eventually a chance at citizenship — to young illegal immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as minors, who have good moral character, and who get a high school diploma or start college or military service. Several versions have failed to pass Congress. Obama's deportation order accomplished some of the provisions but offers no chance at citizenship.||Has said he would veto the latest version of the act and calls it an impediment to consensus in Congress, but hasn't said what that consensus should be. Suggested he might support a narrower proposal by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, which would codify much of Obama's order on deportations.|
|LEGAL IMMIGRATION||Favors granting permanent residency to foreign students who earn U.S. degrees in math, science and engineering. Favors lifting quotas on visas for high-skilled immigrants. Both are steps Congress has blocked.||Ditto on both steps. Agrees U.S. needs more high-skill workers and vows to "staple a green card to the diploma of someone who gets an advanced degree in America," although that might require an OK from Congress, which sets the quotas.|
|WORKER VERIFICATION||Says he seeks reforms to make sure agriculture, tourism and other industries have the seasonal labor they need while avoiding hurting U.S. job applicants, overburdening employers or inviting exploitation of migrants. Supports voluntary use of E-Verify, an online federal system, to check job applicants' eligibility but suggests it's too error-prone to make all employers use it.||Favors making E-Verify mandatory for all employers. Says temporary work permits, a key source of labor for agriculture, are issued too slowly and should be streamlined; Congress has blocked overhaul attempts that include any path to permanent legalization.|
|BORDER CONTROL||Has increased Border Patrol agents, extended conventional fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border and started using drones. Scrapped a high-tech "virtual" fence begun under his predecessor after it was deemed a failure. Border apprehensions last year were the fewest in nearly 40 years, attributed partly to border enforcement and partly to a shortage of U.S. jobs attracting migrants.||Favors posting enough agents to control the southern border and finishing a fence, including the high-tech fence, along the entire border. Also vows a better system to ensure people don't overstay their visas.|