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Why immigration counts in US heartland
18 Dec 2007 1:40 GMT

By Justin Webb
BBC News, New York and Kansas

Viewed from Times Square, in the centre of Manhattan, illegal immigration is really not that much of a problem.

Clyde Haberman, a columnist on the New York Times, epitomises the cosmopolitan, metropolitan take on the subject:

"They're doing all the jobs that New Yorkers in particular and Americans in general don't want to do - driving our cabs, tending to the flower stalls in front of, also, foreign-owned grocery stores, bussing tables in restaurants, very often being waiters in restaurants.

"This notion that somehow we are falling apart because of immigration is ridiculous. Without them, we'd be in serious trouble."

Most of the Democratic candidates in their heart of hearts would agree with Clyde Haberman.

They also know that legal Latino voters are worried about the Republican concentration on the immigration issue and that they may turn out in large numbers for the Democratic candidate next year.

But dare the candidates come out, fair and square, for the kind of policies that suggest real sympathy for illegal immigrants and a pragmatic approach to bringing them into society?

An example from a recent Democratic debate in Philadelphia might suggest not.

When all seven candidates were asked whether they agreed with a proposal by Governor Eliot Spitzer of New York State that illegal immigrants should have driver's licences, only Senator Chris Dodd said he disagreed.

Mr Dodd argued against the proposal, concluding: "A licence is a privilege and that ought not to be extended in my view."

Mrs Clinton responded: "Well, I just want to add, I did not say that it should be done but I certainly recognise why Governor Spitzer is trying do it."

Mr Dodd pounced on her apparently contradictory statements, an attack followed up by rival candidates Senator Barack Obama and former Senator John Edwards.

"Unless I missed something, Senator Clinton said two different things in the course of about two minutes just a few minutes ago," Mr Edwards said.

Her campaign was later forced to issue a statement clarifying her position.

A long way from New York City, in Wichita, Kansas, evangelical leader Pastor Terry Fox warns that listening to East Coast sophisticates on the subject of immigration could doom the Democrats to certain defeat.

"If they're going to elect a president they are going to have to get out where the people are," he said.

"There's so much anger among the white males, the white females.

"[The Democratic candidates] better get out of DC, they better get out in the coffee shops, because they're going to find out that immigration is very high on the agenda for the politics of the mainstream, average, working people."

James Pinkerton, a media adviser to the Reagan and Bush Senior White Houses, was also among those listening to Hillary Clinton stumble - and drawing his own parallels.

He noticed in a Democratic debate in 1988 that the frontrunner, Michael Dukakis, was accused by fellow Democrats of being soft on crime, supporting measures to allow convicted murderers to spend time out of prison.

Among such murderers was Willie Horton, a prisoner who went on to kill a boy in a robbery while on a weekend pass.

Mr Pinkerton researched the matter, to bring it out with devastating effect in the run-up to the election.

So when you watched Hilary Clinton stumble on immigration, what did you think, I asked him?

He replied: "The light bulb went on. I've seen this before - a half-hearted Democratic attempt to talk about a law-and-order issue that gets sort of brushed off, but actually has enormous salience with independents and Republicans."

And do you think the Republicans will have squirreled away that issue of illegal immigration to bring it out again later on in the campaign?

"I don't have a whole lot of faith in some of these Republicans, but... if they don't do it, they're throwing away their best issue," Mr Pinkerton said.

Could the 2008 presidential election be decided in the end not by Iraq or the economy or health, but by a nasty fight over immigration?

It is, at the least, possible - and some people are very much hoping it comes to pass.

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