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Has immigration dropped off Obama's agenda? A conversation with Julia Preston

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Feb. 2, 2009 - With an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, there's much speculation about what kind of policies the Obama administration will back and how different a tone the president will strike from his predecessor on the divisive issue of immigration.

On Monday, New York Times reporter Julia Preston addressed the topic in a speech, "Immigration: Enough Enforcement? The Crackdown and Policy Options for the New Administration," at the Washington University School of Law.

Preston, who covers immigration and international affairs, and who was a member of the newspaper's team that won a 1998 Pulitzer Prize for reporting on effects of drug corruption in Mexico, said the Bush administration's "enforcement-only strategy" has altered the immigration landscape. The prevailing mindset, Preston said, has been the illegal immigrant as a potential national security threat. Deportations and raids increased. Federal prosecutors took on a record number of immigration cases. The stretch of fence along the southern border widened.

In fiscal 2008, roughly 705,000 people were caught trying to cross the U.S.-Mexican border illegally, a 30-year low according to Border Patrol figures. Stricter border enforcement is often leading immigrants to enter the country through more perilous terrain, Preston said. There's also an increasing level of fear among those already here.

"Illegal immigrants I've interviewed don't leave home other than to go to work," Preston said. "They are hesitant to go to church or go to meetings at their kids' schools. Many drive long distances to jobs and are wary of police."

Immigrant workers are settling for lower-wage jobs and choosing not to join unions out of fear for being spotted at meetings, Preston said. Families she interviewed in Tennessee told her that they had put down roots in America and had nothing to go back to at home.

The Beacon sat down with Preston to talk about these immigration issues and more. The following is a mix of that conversation and points she made during her talk.

What led to the widespread change of mindset toward immigrants?

Preston: The answer is Sept. 11. It happened overnight. Our attitude was welcoming to foreigners, then all of the sudden they were the enemy. There was also a feeling of lack of order and control along the southern border. Suddenly those two factors combined to give people a sense of urgency that we needed to clamp down on immigration.

You wrote an article just before the election about how immigration had "cooled" as a campaign topic. Why did that happen?

Preston: [Republican presidential nominee John] McCain was hurt by the issue because his party had taken strong anti-illegal immigrant positions. He did not play up his support for comprehensive reform, and he seemed to waffle on a few occasions, whereas [Barack] Obama was consistent on the issue. It wasn't a winning issue for Obama because he sensed that the Latino vote was going to go against the Republicans anyway without him having to bring immigration forward as a campaign issue. It really wasn't in either candidate's interest to bring it forward.

How is the economy affecting the debate about whether illegal immigrants hurt job prospects for American workers?

Preston: It makes it much more difficult for the Obama administration to raise any kind of comprehensive immigration reform. The notion of legalization for illegal workers at a time when so many Americans are out of jobs is politically difficult. In practice, I'm not sure there's that much conflict between immigrant workers and Americans in the job market. In general, they tend to be in different areas of the job market, but the political perception is we need to be focusing on jobs for American workers and not giving privilege to people who aren't in compliance with the law.

We saw what happened to immigration reform in 2007. This was soundly defeated by a highly mobilized group of people who were connected by the Internet ... and that was when the economy was thriving.

You mentioned in an article and again in your speech that you think the prospects are "dim" of Obama following through on his promise to propose an overhaul of the immigration system during his first year in office. Why?

Preston: I just think the economy makes it so difficult. He has a lot to do. Health-care reform, winding down the war, digging us out of this amazing economic hole, and all of those things are going to go slower than he hopes. I just don't see the window when it would be smart to come forward with this issue. As I say that, [Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid has come forward and said we're going to do this. Maybe he's right, and I'm wrong. Advisers to Obama want to tinker with the immigration system to lessen the draconian penalties. They are seeking fixes not requiring congressional action.

What did your experience following up on the raids of meat-packing plants teach you about immigration realities on the ground?

Preston: One thing that's clear to me is it isn't rhetoric to say that meat-packing jobs aren't attractive to Americans who have other options. Most American workers do have other options than to work on the night shift at $8.95 an hour, which is what they pay at a Tennessee meat-packing factory. In general, I believe that the issues that have roiled this debate aren't labor market issues. It has to do with the traditional friction of adjustment to a new culture, new language, all of which is immensely compounded and complicated by illegal status."

How is the immigration conversation different in the heartland than in the border areas?

Preston: Especially in San Diego and other places this has been a sore issue for a while. There was a period of time when the border was out of control. All kinds of not-so-trivial quality of life issues were being raised -- people walking across highways, trash overflowing, strangers crossing your property.

The tension that seems to have arrived in Tennessee and other places that suddenly seem to have new Hispanic immigration, as I mentioned before, the actual tension isn't around labor force issues so much as it is around the school system and the health system and who should be entitled to public benefits. It's a cultural problem. Why should my school system change to adapt to them? It's easy to understand how that sentiment arises.

Are you surprised that illegal immigrants have been willing to speak to you?

Preston: I have a policy that I don't publish any information that could lead immigration authorities to identify and arrest an illegal immigrant -- not because I'm colluding in a violation of the law, but like a physician I believe journalism has to have a do-no-harm philosophy whenever possible. And I'm always amazed immigrants will speak to me and explain how they see the logic of what they're doing.

Elia Powers is a freelance writer in St. Louis.