OAKLAND, California - These days, while you can still pick up a newspaper or turn on a radio or television gabfest and read, hear and see the issue of immigration batted around, it has become less of a hot-button political issue in the United States.
The shift has happened largely since the U.S. economy hit tough times, with four-dollar a gallon gas a reality in many places and home foreclosure filings continuing to climb.
Nevertheless, on May Day, tens of thousands of immigrant rights supporters marched and rallied in more than a dozen cities across the United States, hoping to reinvigorate the debate over immigration and inject the issue into Election 2008.
This year's turnout paled in comparison to the outpouring of support on May 1, 2006, when more than a million people 'came out of nowhere' and garnered the attention of the public and of media outlets throughout the country.
Last year, immigration was frequently front page news: The media was closely following developments, anti-immigrant vigilante-type groups were forming, border watching efforts were increasing, and state legislatures and city councils were crafting a spate of laws and local ordinances aimed at immigrants.
On a nearly nightly basis, television and radio talk show hosts, such as CNN's Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck, and the Fox News Channel's Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly, were fanning the flames against undocumented workers, conflating them with terrorists and claiming they were bringing diseases into the country. Against this backdrop, the Southern Poverty Law Centre documented a dramatic rise in hate crimes against Latinos.
And, as Republican Party candidates were beginning to toss their hats into the ring to run for the party's presidential nomination, immigration took centre stage. Earlier this year, huge portions of the Republican Party candidates' debates was devoted to which candidate would be tougher on immigration -- with most claiming that mantle.
The lack of progress in national legislation coming from Congress, however, did not deter local entities from taking action. The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) recently issued a report that found that 'States introduced an unprecedented 1,562 laws regarding immigration, of which 240 became law in 2007. In the first three months of this year, more than 1,100 bills were introduced in the 44 state legislatures that were in regular session.'
The report also found that most of the proposed, and signed, 'bills address[ed] law enforcement, employment, driver's licenses and other identification, for both legal and unauthorised immigrants.' Similar to last year, 'the number of immigration-related measures demonstrates states' willingness to respond to the public's concerns in a time when Congress won't,' the report pointed out.
Veteran labour journalist David Bacon recently reported that in mid-March, Mississippi Governor Hayley Barbour signed into law 'the farthest-reaching employer sanctions law of any on the books in the U.S.' According to Bacon, SB 2988 'requires employers to use E-Verify,' an electronic system recently developed by the Department of Homeland Security, which 'by the department's own admission, is not a complete record...[and] its accuracy is unknown.'
Bacon, author of 'The Children of NAFTA, Labour Wars on the U.S./Mexico Border' and the forthcoming book 'Illegal People -- How Globalisation Creates Migration and Criminalises Immigrants', pointed out that according to the Mississippi law, employers will be 'absolved from any liability for hiring undocumented workers so long as they use the E-Verify system,' while it will 'become a felony for an undocumented worker to hold a job.'
The law states that anyone caught can face a jail term of one to five years and a fine of up to 10,000 dollars.
In addition to state and local efforts, the Justice Department has cranked up its arrests and prosecutions of immigrants. According to a Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC) report, in January this year alone, the government reported 4,739 new immigration prosecutions -- 21.6 percent more than the previous month.
'When monthly 2008 prosecutions of this type are compared with those of the same period in the previous year, the number of filings was up (32.7 percent),' TRAC reported. 'Prosecutions over the past year are still much higher than they were five years ago. Overall, the data show that prosecutions of this type are up 140.8 percent from levels reported in 2003.'
Against this background, how will immigration issues play in Election 2008?
'Folks are staying away from the immigration debate, it's a touchy subject,' said Luis Gutierrez, executive director of the Chicago-based Latinos Progresando. 'Some don't want to talk about it, unless it's 'build a fence'.'
Despite concern over other issues, 'Immigration will be on the table everywhere, for both Republicans and Democrats,' David Bacon told IPS.
In the past, all three candidates for the presidency -- Democratic Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton and the Republican Party's presumptive nominee Sen. John McCain -- have opposed draconian measures and supported moderate immigration initiatives.
In 2006, Obama and Clinton supported a bill, sponsored by McCain, which offered undocumented immigrants legal status on conditions such as learning English. All three also have supported a border fence.
After opponents accused McCain of supporting amnesty for undocumented workers, the Arizona senator reversed his position on the need for 'comprehensive' legislation and became a believer in 'securing the nation's borders first' before dealing with other aspects of the issue.
While 'McCain might not want to' place immigration issues at the forefront of his campaign, 'the issue will certainly be pursued by state and local Republican Party candidates, and a host of GOP [Republican] surrogates will try to drag him into the fray,' said Bacon. 'McCain will have to walk a very fine line because of the GOP's strong anti-immigrant base.'
The Democratic Party and its state and local candidates will confront a different dynamic. While party leaders will try to steer clear of discussing the issue, 'conservative candidates will be motivated to talk tough on immigration in order to get elected, and progressive Democrats will want to talk about common sense solutions to please their base,' Bacon pointed out.
Last December, the Pew Hispanic Centre reported that 57 percent of Hispanic registered voters call themselves Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party, while just 23 percent support the Republican Party.
Latinos make up about 15 percent of the U.S. population and 9 percent of the eligible electorate, although 'If past turnout trends persist, they will make up only about 6.5 percent of those who actually turn out to vote' in November, Pew said. However, Latino voters could make a big difference in such swing states as New Mexico, Florida, Nevada and Colorado.
Over the past few months, much of the talk about the Latino vote has revolved around why a majority of Latino voters supported Clinton over Obama. The Latino vote -- excluding for the most part Florida's Republican-oriented Cuban exile community -- has been up for grabs in the past. But in the most recent election cycle, when many Republican officials and surrogates insisted on pounding undocumented workers, Latino voters began flocking in greater numbers to the Democratic Party.
'I don't think immigration is off the table,' Bacon told IPS. 'There will be continued raids, immigrant families will continue to suffer, and the potential firing of thousands of workers will make it hard to look the other way.'
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His column 'Conservative Watch' documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the U.S. Right.
© 2008 Inter Press Service