Page last updated at 14:38 GMT, Friday, 19 September 2008 15:38 UK

Vote USA 2008 issues: Immigration

Immigration is among the most sensitive issues in the US election campaign.

The US has always been a nation of immigrants, but while new waves of immigrants have contributed to America's economic growth, they have also been a source of controversy.

California: 2.5m-2.75m
Texas: 1.4m-1.6m
Florida: 800,000-950,000
New York: 550,000-650,000
Arizona: 400,000-450,000
Source: Pew Hispanic Center estimates based on US government's Current Population Survey, March 2005

Since the 1970s, a wave of new migrants - from Latin America and Asia - have reached America's shores, with more than one million arriving legally each year - and perhaps 500,000 crossing the border illegally.

It is estimated that the number of illegal immigrants in the country could be well over 10 million.

In August 2007, the Washington-based Centre for Immigration Studies estimated there were 12.5 million illegal migrants living in America. A year later, its research suggested an 11% drop in the number of illegal immigrants, to 11.2 million.

Labour supply

Republicans have been very publically divided on the issue of immigration in recent years.

One faction, led by President George W Bush and supported by the many businesses which depend on the immigrant workforce, has been fighting for an amnesty for illegals in order to avoid a sudden drop in the labour supply.

Democrats hope to capitalise on the perception that Republicans are hostile to Hispanics - but they too have problems with the immigration issue

Many rank-and-file party members, however, are hostile to attempts to provide illegal immigrants with a "pathway to citizenship".

Aware of the strength of feeling in the party, most Republican legislators opposed Mr Bush's comprehensive immigration plan, which contained an amnesty for some illegal immigrants, and it ran into the buffers in mid-2007.

Republican presidential candidate John McCain was one of the few Republican senators to back President Bush's plan, and his stance on immigration made him unpopular with many in the party.

During campaigning for the 2008 election, both he and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama have said they support a path to legalisation for illegal immigrants that includes a requirement to learn English and pay fines.

Mr McCain has described border security as the "first and foremost priority" in tackling the problem. Mr Obama has also backed border security improvements and stressed the need to penalise employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

Both also voted in favour of the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which created 700 miles of new fence along the US border with Mexico.

Swing states

The Democrats are hoping to capitalise on the Republican Party's disarray on the issue - and the perception that the party is hostile to Hispanics - to gain more of their votes.

Latinos are the fastest-growing ethnic minority in the US, making up some 15% of the population, and in 2008 will make up about 9% of the eligible electorate.

President Bush in his first term had some success in appealing to the Hispanic vote, increasing his support in this group from 30% in 2000 to 40% in 2004.

But recent elections have shown the Hispanic vote returning to its Democratic leanings.

A December 2007 Pew Research Center study found that 57% of Hispanic registered voters called themselves Democratic, while 23% said they were Republican - a gap of 34 percentage points. In July 2006, that gap was only 21 percentage points.

This could prove significant in 2008 because Hispanic voters are concentrated in several key states where Mr Bush won narrow victories in 2004, including Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado.

In another promising sign for the Democrats, there was a sharp increase in participation by many Latino voters in the party's 2008 primary elections. In California, for example, they made up 30% of the turnout, compared with 16% in 2004.

Despite this trend, the issue of immigration is not necessarily a comfortable one for the Democrats.

As fears grow of an economic slowdown, it is also clear that many rank-and-file Democrats blame immigrants for the loss of their jobs.

Most immigrants are relatively unskilled, and many are employed in menial jobs in construction, hotel and catering, and light industries such as clothing manufacture.

Some economists suggest the slowdown in the US housing market is already playing a role in reducing the number of immigrant workers, as many choose to return home when there is no work.

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