Immigration: Election Issue Fade-Out

Neither party holds a clear advantage on the issue.

Will the illegal immigration issue save the Republican majorities? Back in June, California Republican Brian Bilbray won a hotly contested election for a House seat by demanding tougher border security. Republicans thought they had their issue at last.

Voters' biggest complaint about illegal immigration? The burden on taxpayers. Gabrielle Giffords, who's running for Congress in Arizona's 8th District, put it this way: "There's a big concern right now that health care is not being delivered properly, that education is not being delivered properly, and that illegal immigrants are the beneficiaries of the taxpayers' dollars."

Giffords is a Democrat. By stressing her commitment to border security in a district bordering Mexico and heavily affected by illegal immigration, she's undercutting the appeal of her Republican opponent, who's running virtually a one-issue campaign on border security.

In Tennessee's Senate race, meanwhile, Democrat Harold Ford takes a hard line on border security. One of his television ads says, "Harold Ford Jr. will get control of our borders, get tough on illegals and employers who break the law." His Republican opponent, construction company owner Bob Corker, calls Ford a phony. A Corker ad claims that Ford "votes against border security and against putting troops on the border, then says he wants to fight illegal immigration." Who's calling whom a phony? According to Ford's ad, "The Immigration and Naturalization Service found illegal workers on Bob Corker's construction site while he looked the other way." Doesn't sound like a difference of positions here -- just a difference of who's tougher on the issue.

In Colorado's 7th District, the Republican is running as the tough guy on illegal immigration. "The differences are big," candidate Rick O'Donnell said. No they're not, responded Democratic candidate Ed Perlmutter, who argued, "I don't think we differ by much." Perlmutter talked about strong action that Colorado's Democratic-controlled Legislature has taken. "We made it tougher for employers to continue to hire illegal aliens," the former state senator said. "We limited benefits to the bare bones for people who are here illegally."

Democrats also ask, "What has the federal government done about illegal immigration?" Perlmutter says that people in his district "want to deal with issues like immigration, and not just talk about it as the Republican Congress has been doing."

Actually, Congress did approve building a 700-mile fence along the Mexican border, although it has not yet funded the project. Does the public favor a fence? Actually, voters are almost sitting on the fence. In a CNN poll taken by Opinion Research last month, 45 percent favored the fence, and 53 percent opposed it.

Illegal immigration is really two issues. One involves border security. Americans generally favor stronger border controls. Put more agents on the border with Mexico? Nearly three-quarters of Americans said yes in the CNN poll. Impose fines of tens of thousands of dollars on employers who hire illegal workers? Fifty-eight percent said yes.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., called the fence "an important step," but added, "It's not the entire process." The second issue? "We are clearly going to need to think through what you do with people who are already here," Gingrich said.

Generally, the public agrees with President Bush, who said in May, "There is a rational middle ground between granting an automatic path to citizenship for every illegal immigrant and a program of mass deportation." A CNN poll taken in May found overwhelming support -- 81 percent -- for giving illegal immigrants who have been in the United States more than five years a path to citizenship if they have a job and will pay their back taxes. What happens if the poll question asks whether we should "give amnesty to illegal immigrants" who meet those requirements? Support declines only slightly, to 72 percent.

Many Democrats support a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for some illegal aliens -- the position of Bush and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. Republicans who take a hard line against amnesty find themselves in disagreement with their own president.

Bottom line? Forty-five percent of voters say that congressional Democrats would do a better job of handling the illegal immigration problem, while 43 percent say the Republicans would. Neither party holds a clear advantage on the issue. Politically, it's a wash.