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April 8, 2001

A Hue, and a Cry, in the Heartland

New York Times

The last of the state population figures from the 2000 census have been made public, creating a new picture of the nation. Details are still fuzzy, but the broad outlines are clear: Hispanic and Asian immigrants - and more important, their children and grandchildren - are remaking small towns and big cities across the American heartland.

This means explosive issues like public services for illegal immigrants and bilingual education, which detonated over the past decade in California and a handful of other states, now affect communities in Iowa and Nevada. The exploitation of immigrant workers, once associated with New York City sweatshops or West Coast agribusiness, is on the agenda of towns in West Virginia and Georgia. And the question of how to integrate people from diverse backgrounds and colors into the American mainstream is debated everywhere, because immigrant families have settled just about everywhere.

In many states, there are already signs of public unease over the role of immigration in crowding schools, burdening hospitals and depressing wages. It may not take much to turn those worries into a nativist backlash. Paroxysms of anti-immigrant fervor, after all, usually accompany recession. Historically it starts with calls for a crackdown on illegal immigrants and sometimes, indeed as recently as 1996, the backlash produces laws that take services away not only from illegal but also from legal noncitizens.

The 2000 census figures have put illegal immigrants in the public policy spotlight.

Larger-than-expected census figures for the number of Hispanics in the country have led some analysts to conclude that the number of illegal immigrants had also been underestimated. The accepted view prior to the census was that about 6.5 million people, or one-quarter of the foreign-born population, were in the country illegally. Experts now say the illegal population may range from 7.1 to 9 million people.

"At some level, the politicians and public will become intolerant of the presence of so many undocumented immigrants," said Jeffrey S. Passel, an analyst at the Urban Institute who recently revised upwards his estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the nation. With the number much higher than previously thought, Mr. Passel added, intolerance could emerge far sooner.

Only a few years ago, resentment of illegal immigrants in California led to a backlash that crystallized into support for Proposition 187, which barred the children of illegal immigrants from public service and sought other restrictions. Congress also took a crack at immigrants, passing laws in 1996 that eliminated benefits even for legal immigrants who had not become citizens.

California demonstrated that a backlash can become whiplash for politicians who ride an anti-immigrant wave. Take the case of California Governor Pete Wilson, who saw his support for Proposition 187 turn into a liability when Latinos ultimately mobilized against him and other Republicans. George W. Bush, who did relatively well with Latino voters in many states, had a disappointing showing among California Latinos in the 2000 race.

While an anti-immigrant stand proved a liability for politicians in heavily-immigrant states, immigration is becoming a tempting target again.

IN Texas, with its history of absorbing newcomers from Mexico and Latin America, the lieutenant governor recently complained that illegal immigrants are "clogging" schools and hospitals. He was roundly criticized by Latino activists. But his demand that the federal government help pay the costs of illegal immigration is a harbinger of how the anti-immigrant debate is likely to unfold.

So if officials in Texas raise questions about the burdens of immigrants, what can be expected of politicians in places just getting used to immigrants? The answer, so far, is ambivalence.

When the governor of Iowa started talking recently about creating incentives to attract immigrants to fill factory jobs, the state legislature began considering an English-only law that is seen by some as an attack on immigrants. A number of governors have trekked to Mexico to find ways to bring in Mexican workers. At the same time, however, officials in those same states are demanding that the Immigration and Naturalization Service come and check all immigrants to make sure they are legal.

A similar dynamic is at work in the labor market. Nationally, organized labor has acknowledged its ranks must be replenished by immigrants and has embraced immigrant causes. But, in individual cities and towns, unions can be fickle allies. Bowing to union pressure, for example, West Virginia's governor barred any company using illegal workers from getting state contracts.

It may not be that more people are entering the country illegally, but that more are staying once they arrive. Stepped-up controls on the borders, stiff new penalties for those who try to reenter the country after an illegal stay and other restrictive laws may now have slowed the traditional shuttle between home countries and the United States.

"There are clearly a lot more people staying and a lot less back and forth as time goes by," said Frank D. Bean, the director of the Center for Research on Immigration, Population Dynamics and Public Policy at the University of California at Irvine.

But punishing immigrants - legal or illegal - does not bring clear-cut results.

Consider the composition of immigrant families. More than half of the American households headed by noncitizens - that is, legal and illegal immigrants - contain children, according to a 1999 study by the Urban Institute. Significantly, three-quarters of those children are American citizens.

AN intertwining of immigrants and citizens can be found as much in the economy as in society, said Demetrios G. Papademetriou, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "They're becoming imbedded in every labor market sector, in a mutual dependence so deep that you cannot extricate yourself from it," he said.

And this is no longer a problem for just a few regions but for the entire nation. "The dispersion of immigrants," said Dr. Papademetriou, "will be a transforming event for the way we understand, study and talk politically about immigration for years to come."

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