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Immigrant Advocates Aim To Influence Midterm Elections

As the Obama administration continues to step up immigration enforcement, advocates in New York and elsewhere are pushing harder for reforms that are more friendly to immigrants without legal papers. And with midterm elections coming, the debate is gaining intensity. People on both sides of the issue agree that the federal government has done too little to fix a broken immigration system. But the two camps have very different ideas about how to fix it.

On one side, many are opposed to living alongside immigrants who do not have the legal right to be here. And because the federal government has failed to keep illegal immigrants out, people are looking for ways to address the problem locally. One example is the new Arizona law that gives local police the responsibility to check the legal status of people they suspect are here illegally. There have been similar efforts to localize enforcement in municipalities and counties on Long Island, in New York, and in New Jersey. The measures range from anti-loitering laws meant to stop day laborers from waiting on the street for work to getting local police forces into a federal program that gives them a role in immigration enforcement.

On the other side, people are outraged that, given what they viewed as promises of immigrant-friendly reform from the Obama administration, President Obama and the Democrats have not pushed harder and faster for reform. They say that every day that goes by without immigration reform is a potential nightmare because at present there are more detentions and deportations of immigrants than ever.

Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition says: "The status quo is not a neutral status quo. Every day, more than a thousand people get deported. These are the very people who deserve to be legalized. If we can't come to a negotiated agreement, at least be fair. Stop the deportations while we figure out a solution."

Activists have been getting religious leaders and local elected officials to get themselves arrested in order to draw attention to the plight of families being split up when immigrants are deported. Several events have taken place in Manhattan this month.

They say that decades of lax enforcement has created a whole class of illegal immigrants who have built lives here and have children who are United States citizens, and that it is not fair to deport them now. And though immigration officials say they’re focusing their enforcement efforts on people who committed crimes or ignored orders to leave the country, sometimes the crimes are two decades old and relatively minor. And authorities also detain and deport immigrants who have no criminal record. Advocates say if the Obama administration intends to create a way for some of the immigrants who are here illegally to win the right to stay, officials should not be putting so many resources into deporting them before some reform is agreed upon.

Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute says such an amnesty would backfire: "The effects of an amnesty are to draw more people from across the world into the country illegally."  

She argues it is not fair to let people who came here illegally stay while others wait patiently for their turn to come legally.

"People came here knowing they were breaking the law, and that is a risk that they assumed," MacDonald says.

On both sides of this debate, people are clamoring to influence midterm elections. In areas where races are close, particularly in Southwestern states such as Arizona and New Mexico as well as Colorado, strong feelings about immigration policy could decide the winners.