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Ambivalence Prevails in Immigration Policy


WASHINGTON, May 26 -- The United States spends as much as $2 billion a year to build walls, post 24- hour patrols and crack down on illegal immigrants streaming across its 2,000-mile border with Mexico.

Once inside the border, however, illegal immigrants who evade the Border Patrol and survive scorching deserts and treacherous mountains find a nation that is increasingly willing to ignore laws that forbid hiring them and to embrace them in homes and workplaces.

Labor-strapped employers risk steep fines and even jail to hire undocumented workers. Some lawmakers who have voted to increase the Border Patrol scream in protest if raids by the Immigration and Naturalization Service upset businesses in their districts. More states are issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants for public safety reasons and in recognition that the immigrants are here to stay.

"There's a fundamental ambivalence in our nation over what to do about illegal immigrants who are living in our communities and who have become contributing members," said Joseph R. Greene, the immigration service's assistant commissioner for investigations.

To be sure, illegal immigrants still confront tough laws aimed at deterring them from coming here. On any day, the I.N.S. detains 20,000 immigrants in government facilities or county jails, most awaiting deportation.

But even as President Bush called President Vicente Fox of Mexico on Friday and expressed "deep sadness and condolences" over the deaths of 14 migrants in the Arizona desert this week, the incident has highlighted the country's conflicting stands on immigration.

On the one hand, Mr. Bush has tried to live up to his pro-immigrant campaign position. He has urged Congress to extend a deadline for illegal immigrants to apply for legal residency in the United States without first returning to their home country. He has also agreed to allow thousands of Salvadorans living here illegally to remain in the United States for up to 18 months to help El Salvador recover from several devastating earthquakes.

Yet there is no consensus on solutions for stanching the flow of at least 300,000 immigrants who enter the country illegally or overstay legal visas every year.

Advocates of a more restrictionist immigration policy argue that tough border enforcement must be coupled with tougher interior enforcement. "We're essentially dangling jobs in front of these people, but they have to run the gantlet to get them," said Mark S. Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, an independent, nonprofit research organization.

But in a sign of the priorities of the I.N.S. and Congress, there are 9,400 Border Patrol agents, compared with the equivalent of 300 full-time I.N.S. agents to enforce workplace laws.

Because of the political repercussions, Mr. Greene said, the I.N.S. has virtually abandoned large raids on employers, except for those suspected of collaborating with smugglers or displacing native-born workers.

There are some tangible signs that American society is more willing to treat illegal immigrants as de facto community members than as criminals.

In a step that immigration experts say would have been inconceivable a few years ago, Utah, North Carolina and Tennessee are issuing driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Several other states, including Texas, Illinois, California and Minnesota, are considering such a move.

This serves a public safety purpose by training and testing immigrants who are driving anyway. But it also grants to foreigners who are breaking the law just by being here a valuable piece of identification they can use in many ways, including applying for a job and cashing checks.

At the same time, immigrants have become a powerful force that politicians are loath to anger. For the first time since the 1930's, one of every 10 Americans is foreign born. Both political parties are aggressively wooing Hispanics, who have drawn even with blacks as the nation's largest minority.

While in some polls Hispanics have expressed ambivalence toward illegal immigration, they have punished candidates -- Republicans in particular -- for anti-immigrant positions.

"All of this has been a part of a new discussion to have policies match reality rather than bend reality to match policies," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group.

In many respects, the conflicting impulses today are a backlash against the anti-immigrant backlash of the mid-1990's championed by Gov. Pete Wilson of California. Mr. Wilson, a Republican, was re-elected on the back of Proposition 187, which put tough restrictions on services for illegal immigrants and their children. Though voters overwhelmingly supported the proposition, it was later voided by the courts.

Since then, a booming economy has made immigrant labor a coveted commodity. Were the nation's estimated six million to nine million illegal immigrants expelled tomorrow, thousands of hotels, restaurants, poultry-processing plants, landscaping companies and garment factories would very likely close.

Mr. Bush's election signified the ascension of the pro-immigrant wing of the Republican Party, which still has powerful anti-immigrant critics.

And other powerful forces that once were critical of open immigration are courting the new residents. After years of viewing immigrants as a threat, competing for jobs and depressing wage levels, the A.F.L.- C.I.O. last year called for amnesty for all illegal workers, seeing immigrants as potential union members.

While most experts agree that greater prosperity in Mexico is the ultimate solution to keeping its people home, Doris M. Meissner, the I.N.S. commissioner under President Bill Clinton, said cross-border cooperation could ease the problem.

"The border needs to be a place where the flows of people and goods are regulated," Ms. Meissner said. "What the U.S. has been doing in recent years is bringing some order out of the chaos."

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