Election Issue: Immigration–Politicians At State, Local Level Weigh In On National Topic

Election issue: Immigration

Politicians at state, local level weigh in on national topic

Statesman Journal

October 13, 2006

Some candidates in Oregon have taken to talking tough on the volatile topic of immigration.

Campaign ads targeting illegal immigrants flash across TV screens and blare on the airwaves.

While some talk about the need to curb illegal immigration, none offer voters comprehensive answers about how to deal with the estimated 12 million noncitizens already in the nation. In Oregon, that figure is estimated to be between 125,000 and 175,000.

“Congress sets immigration rules, (and) we ought to enforce them,” said Republican gubernatorial hopeful Ron Saxton, who advocates for an enforcement-only policy.

“We shouldn't be just looking the other way,” he said. “There should be rules about who gets in this country and who doesn't.”

His Democratic opponent, Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who supports a policy that would include a guest-worker program, has, for the most part, been silent on the issue.

“Sure, you have to enforce the current law, but the idea that you can deport 12 million people is just not realistic,” the governor said. “If you deport the adults, what do you do with their children, who are American citizens?

“Yes, you have to have a secure border and you have to invest in both the border patrol and technology, but you also have to be fair on the people who are already in this country.”

In Oregon and across the nation, battle cries by some sectors have demanded the massive deportation of undocumented immigrants. Strategists, however, have said that would pose a daunting logistical challenge.

Kulongoski and Saxton agree that stricter enforcement of workplace rules could help reduce the flow of illegal migrants.

It once was unheard of for state and local politicians to campaign on immigration policy.

Such policy has been the responsibility of the federal government since the late 1800s, a law upheld by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

But with comprehensive immigration reform stalled at the federal level, state and local politicians are feeling the pressure from angry voters to come up with solutions.

They say illegal immigrants are straining Oregon's budgets on healthcare, law enforcement, public housing, public education and other public services.

Absent a congressional agreement on immigration, some states have taken it upon themselves to offer their own legal remedies.

This year, an unprecedented 550 pieces of legislation on illegal immigration have been introduced by state legislatures, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. That's up from the typical 50 to 100 per year.

Oregon was not among those states.

Last year, however, the Oregon's House Transportation Committee debated on a bill that would have required driver's license applicants to show proof of citizenship or legal residency. The proposal, intended to deny driver's licenses to illegal immigrants, never made it to the House floor.

Fifth Congressional District Rep. Darlene Hooley, a Democrat running for re-election, agrees that something needs to be done to curtail the increasing number of illegal immigrants entering the country.

She says she supports a policy that would include a guest-worker program.

“But we need to start with security at the borders,” Hooley said. “Once that's been done, then we need to fix the nation's current Social Security system. Right now, it takes years to verify the validity of a worker's Social Security card.

“We need a system that offers better timelessness so that employers can quickly check if a worker's Social Security number is legitimate.”

Last year, Hooley voted against a House bill that would make unauthorized presence in the country a felony and create 700 miles of border fencing along sections of the 2,000-mile line separating the United States and Mexico.

More recently, she voted in favor of a measure to create the double-layered fence. President Bush signed the bill into law Oct. 4.

Unlike Hooley, who supports a policy that would give undocumented immigrants now living in the country a chance at citizenship, her opponent, Republican candidate Mike Erickson, takes a different stance.

“I don't believe amnesty is the right answer to our immigration problems,” Erickson stated. “I think if illegals want to become U.S. citizens, they need to follow the rules and they need to learn English.

“I think they should serve in the military, and maybe go to war, and then they could apply for citizenship, but only if they learn to speak English.”

Such a path to citizenship already is in place.

Under an executive order signed by the president in July 2002, certain immigrants can cut to the front of the line if they serve a year of active duty in the military. Only legal residents, and immigrants who entered the country illegally and then applied for residency, can join the armed forces.

When it comes to immigration reform, state Rep. Billy Dalto, the Republican incumbent in House District 21, advocates against a policy that would legally bring new foreign workers into the nation.

He also does not support giving undocumented people a shot a citizenship.

“The federal government needs to … enforce immigration laws already on the books,” Dalto said. “We are a nation of laws. People who want citizenship have to follow the rules.”

His opponent, Democratic candidate Brian Clem, shares the same view, with an additional take.

“We need to make sure we stop the trafficking of illegal immigrants by cracking down on those in the business of bringing people across the border,” Clem said.

Like many in the state, Clem accuses the federal government of sidestepping its duty to overhaul the nation's immigration laws.

“The fence act is now law, and we will see if it will have any impact on immigrants coming into the country,” he said.

Dalto also backs the fence effort, which is intended to stem illegal migration.

“I support efforts by the federal government to secure our borders and protect the people of this country and this state,” Dalto said.

The new law that allows the creation of a 700-mile double-layered fence is part of a $33.2 billion homeland security spending package.

It includes funds to boost the number of border patrol agents to 14,800 from 12,000 and pays for 27,500 new detention beds, an increase of 6,700.

Whether a strong stance on immigration and border security will resonate with voters in the state in November remains to be seen.

“In Oregon, it's probably not as big an issue as it is in states with much larger immigrant populations,” said Richard Clucas, a stragetist and professor of political science at Portland State University.

“It's something that's done to motivate the conservative base of the Republican party,” he said. “Our state is diversifying, but it's still fairly homogeneous.”

Jackie Winters, the Republican incumbent in Senate District 10, and her Democratic opponent, Paul Evans, did not return requests for comment on the immigration issue.

Democratic Rep. Betty Komp, the incumbent in House District 22, and Republican challenger Carl Wieneke also did not return requests for comment.