Election Bait

Why Congress suddenly cares about illegal immigration.

It might seem strange that illegal immigration, which didn't warrant much national attention as recently as two years ago, would suddenly emerge as one of the key issues in the 2006 elections. The timing seems especially odd to congressional Democrats, many of whom believe the issue is a phony election-year wedge designed to distract attention from the troubles afflicting the Republican Party.

But a recently released report from the Homeland Security Department helps explain how the debate gained traction-and why it might prove to be politically rewarding for Republicans in November.

According to the August 2006 report from the DHS Office of Immigration Statistics, there were an estimated 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants in January 2005. While it's easy to guess which state has the largest estimated population of unauthorized immigrants (California, with 2.8 million), the rest of the top 10 is considerably more difficult to predict. It includes places such as Georgia, Nevada and North Carolina-none of them border states and none typically associated with large-scale illegal immigration.

This phenomenon is the driving force behind the new politics of immigration. It used to be easy to ignore the nation's porous borders because most Americans lived in places where illegal immigration was an abstract issue. But that's no longer true, as more and more undocumented aliens leapfrog the traditional destination states to pursue economic opportunities elsewhere.

Perhaps the best place to view the consequences is Georgia, home to the nation's fastest-growing unauthorized population. According to DHS estimates, 470,000 illegal immigrants live in Georgia-a quarter-million of whom arrived between 2000 and 2005. The state ranked a close third, after Texas and California, in average annual increase.

In Georgia, the challenge of absorbing a quarter-million illegal immigrants in just five years has sparked a backlash reminiscent of California in the mid-1990s.

In May, the Georgia legislature passed a sweeping immigration reform measure so restrictive that it drew criticism from President Vincente Fox of Mexico. The state's Republican congressional delegation is perhaps the most active-and hawkish-in the House of Representatives when it comes to immigration policy.

Georgia isn't the only state where the federal government's inability to police the borders sparked a political response. In 2004, Republican congressional incumbents in a handful of states began to see the emergence of primary election challengers whose sole focus was illegal immigration. No member of Congress lost a seat over the issue, but it seems many decided not to take any chances. So within a month after President Bush's reelection, a surprisingly large contingent of House Republicans drew a line in the sand during the intelligence reform bill debate over driver licenses for illegal immigrants.

At the time, it was a puzzling point to fight about, but now the picture is much clearer. Those members never would have put up such resistance on a national security-oriented bill unless they were picking up something big on the radar back home.

It's hard to know whether immigration politics will save the Republican majority in November. But there was an ominous sign in a June 2006 special election to replace Republican Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham, the disgraced California congressman who resigned in late 2005.

In that highly competitive San Diego-based contest, the Democratic candidate faltered after making a remark that appeared to suggest she was encouraging illegal immigrants to vote. She quickly clarified her position, insisting the comment was misconstrued, but by then the damage was done. Her campaign never recovered from its tailspin, and the GOP held onto the seat.

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