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Immigration at Issue in NY-23, Virginia, New Jersey Elections

New America Media, Blog Report, Marcelo Ballv Posted: Nov 03, 2009

Today's elections, many of them in eastern seaboard states, are the first big political test for the Obama administration. While most pundits focus on whether or not Republican candidates will surge on a voter backlash against Obama policies, there's another trend to watch: the surprising prominence of immigration politics.

Immigration has even surfaced as an issue in NY-23. The once-obscure upstate New York congressional district-- where maverick conservative Doug Hoffman displaced the official Republican nominee-- is now a cable news and blog sensation. As his upstart candidacy surged, Hoffman found himself holding forth on immigration policy on Fox News.

On Oct. 21, Hoffman appeared on the Glenn Beck Program and was asked at length about his issues on immigration (the full transcript of the interview is available here). Asked what he thought about an "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, Hoffman replied:

I do not believe on giving amnesty. I do believe, again, in giving better easier regulations and red tape to make workers that want to come into this country, giving them green cards easier so that we know they're in here legally ...

Drilled by Beck, Hoffman traced out his immigration stance in full detail. No legalization for undocumented immigrants, but crackdowns on employers who hire them and less red tape for immigrants, especially skilled ones, who want to enter the country legally.

Hoffman's is a fairly predictable conservative stance on immigration, but what's more interesting is that he was quizzed at such length on the issue. As a candidate for an upstate rural district that borders Canada, Lake Erie, and Vermont, Hoffman is likely to spend more time on issues like small farms and forestry management in the Adirondacks. But immigration has become a litmus test issue for the conservative movement, which wants its candidates in lockstep on the "no to immigration amnesty" plank of its platform.

(Meanwhile, House Democrats are pushing Obama to act on comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to legal status for the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants.)

The other two of today's most-watched races are gubernatorial contests in New Jersey and Virginia. Immigration policy is made at the federal level, so until recently, governors had little incentive to get involved in the immigration issue-- especially during campaigns, when they had more to lose than to gain by weighing in on an issue they couldn't control.

But as attempts by Congress to reform immigration failed in recent years, the federal government began delegating immigration enforcement powers to states and localities. One program, known as 287g, allows law enforcement agencies to contract with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE, to carry out duties once left to federal agents. State capitols also began to take immigration matters into their own hands, weaving their own webs of tough immigration-linked laws.

This trend suddenly made immigration a politically exploitable issue at the state level.

Virginia's gubernatorial race has become, among other things, a referendum on 287g. The Republican candidate Bob McDonnell wants to extend 287g across the entire state and ask state troopers to enforce immigration law, something Democrat Creigh Deeds opposes.

Several law enforcement departments in Virginia counties already have 287g contracts with ICE. Supporters of the program argue that it has helped reduce crime by hastening the deportation of undocumented immigrants involved in illegal activity, but immigrant rights activists say 287g has led to a culture of racial profiling that has terrorized Latino communities.

In New Jersey, immigration has been less prominent an issue, but it hasn't been ignored. The 287g program has been hotly debated statewide, and it came up during a gubernatorial debate last month.

Incumbent Gov. Jon Corzine, a Democrat, has also sought in-state tuition for New Jersey's undocumented immigrant students. His opponent, Chris Christie, opposes that plan.

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