Democratic presidential contenders face heat on immigration issue

By Arun Kumar, IANS

Washington : The emotive issue of what to do with America’s estimated over 12 million illegal immigrants, including some 300,000 Indians, is proving to be a hard nut to crack for Democratic presidential contenders.

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They faced the issue afresh during a two-hour National Public Radio (NPR) debate in Iowa Tuesday with a tough poser to all: “Should an American citizen turn in someone they know to be an illegal immigrant?”

The answer in the end for most of the candidates was no, even as they sought to balance conflicting emotions and political forces on an issue that looms both in the coming caucuses and primaries and in the November 2008 election, media reports said.

“We are not going to deputise a whole bunch of American citizens to start grabbing people or turning them in,” said Senator Barack Obama, the rising black star who is fast catching up with frontrunner Hillary Clinton.

“The ordinary American citizen may not know whether or not this person is illegal or not,” he said during the first presidential debate without television cameras.

Obama, followed by other Democrats, argued that tracking down illegal immigrants was the job of the government.

“If a citizen witnessed some other kind of crime, wouldn’t you want them to report it?” Steve Inskeep of NPR asked former first lady Hillary Clinton after she said that she did not think that citizens should be “enforcing the broken laws of our federal immigration system”.

Clinton said: “It’s a very clever question, Steve, but I think it really begs the question – what we’re looking at here is 12 to 14 million people – they live in our neighbourhoods, they take care of our elderly, they probably made the beds in the hotels that some of us stayed in last night.

“They are embedded in our society. If we want to listen to the demagogues and the calls for us to being to round up people and turn every American into a suspicious vigilante, I think we will do graver harm to the fabric of our nation than any kind of person-by-person reporting of someone who might be here illegally.”

Repeatedly asked whether workers who were in the country illegally were driving down wages, John Edwards, Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2004, said: “Well, I think what the studies show is there are a lot of things driving down wages in the United States of America.”

Obama came up with a clearer response: “I believe that there are circumstances where, in fact, illegal immigrants are driving down wages.

“The question is: How do we fix it?” he asked. “Because, often times, when it’s posed that way, then the thinking is that somehow we have to pit low-wage American workers versus low-wage immigrant workers.”

Senator Christopher J. Dodd suggested, in response to a question, that Americans should face penalties for knowingly hiring nannies or other domestic workers who are in the country illegally.

“People who knowingly hire undocumented workers I think need to be held accountable to a far higher degree of penalties – civil and possibly criminal,” Dodd said.

House of Representatives member Dennis Kucinich said: “We don’t encourage vigilantism in this country.”