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Immigration Finds Itself As Ballot Issue Again

transcript from All Things Considered, September 19, 2008:

MICHELE NORRIS, host: From NPR News this is All Things Considered, I'm Michele Norris. Listen closely to the daily back and forth between John McCain and Barack Obama. And some words you hear again and again - words like jobs and taxes. But there's one word you're hearing a lot less lately, immigration. You won't find it on many state ballots this fall either. As NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports, the issue may have lost its political punch for the moment.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Jenny Bowser (ph) tracks ballot measures for the National Conference of State Legislators. She says voters in Missouri will get to weigh in on making English the official state language. In Arizona, there will be proposed tweaks to that state's restriction on hiring undocumented workers. Oregon voters will decide whether to limit the time foreign-born students can spend an English as a second language. And part of a broad criminal justice measure in California, would deny bail to illegal immigrants charged with violent crimes.

Ms. JENNY BOWSER (National Conference of State Legislators): I think that on the whole these are more along the lines of tweaking. There's nothing like Arizona's proposition 200, from a few years ago that was a big sweeping immigration reform measure.

LUDDEN: Bowser says there were efforts at more sweeping crackdowns in several states, but they didn't get enough signatures to qualify.

Ms. BOWSER: You know, I'm frankly a little bit surprised that there aren't more of these big sweeping measures because it is I think that most people would probably put it in their top 10 issues for this year's election.

Mr. NATHAN NEWMAN (Progressive States Network): The fact that there are a very few of them and they're very scattered reflects the general fall in energy around the anti-immigrant movement.

LUDDEN: Nathan Newman(ph) is with the Progressive States Network which supports immigrant-friendly legislation. He points out that in 2006 a number of Congressional candidates who ran on a hard line anti-immigration platform lost. The same thing happened in the Republican presidential primaries. And Newman says states which have past immigration crackdowns have had mixed results. That may explain why for all the immigration bills considered by state legislators in recent years few have actually passed.

Mr. NEWMAN: There's been a message that this wasn't going to be the magic wedge issue that some political opportunists on the conservative side had hoped for. I think that meant that both the money and volunteer time to try to support new ballot initiatives just wasn't there in these states.

LUDDEN: In Arkansas, it certainly wasn't for lack of trying on the part of Jeannie Burlsworth(ph). She founded Secure Arkansas and says she nearly ran herself ragged trying to get a ballot initiative to limit public benefits to illegal immigrants. She fell just a few thousand signatures short.

Ms. JEANNIE BURLSWORTH (Co-founder, Secure Arkansas): Believe me, public sentiment has not died down at least in our state, and it is, I'm telling you, outraged.

LUDDEN: Burlsworth says despite the ballot failure she's just getting going on the issue of illegal immigration. She's driving around the states speaking at public forums, plans to reorganize her group and is looking ahead.

Ms. BURLSWORTH: I'm looking at candidates for 2010 because now I have contacts in all of 75 of our counties, and I honestly think once we get really, really organized we can swing an election big time.

LUDDEN: There may be another reason for so few immigration-related ballot measures. Jeannie Bowser, the analyst who monitors state legislators says states may be realizing there's only so much they can do. Immigration is really a federal issue. So once the votes are counted in November, activists on both sides will once again turn their focus to Congress. Jennifer Ludden, NPR News Washington.