Support Grows for Immigration, but Reservations Linger ; as Washington Gears Up for More Debate, Surveys Show Americans Are Torn by Competing Values

Article excerpt

Gloria Tappan has no doubts when it comes to helping customers decide on stemware or choose just the right card for a special occasion.

But when the gift-shop owner in Helena, Ark., considers the issue of immigration and its impact on the United States, all that certainty converts to mixed emotions.

"I'm not sure how I feel about immigration. I can see the arguments for all sides," says the resident of a Mississippi River town where the Spanish-speaking population has jumped over recent years. "It's not an easy question for the people in Washington or anyone else to answer."

Mrs. Tappan, you speak for a nation.

With the 2000 census showing historically high levels of immigrants as a percentage of the US population, and with job layoffs raising anxieties about the economy, immigration is experiencing one of its periodic ascents in public interest.

Curiosity over President Bush's call for some kind of amnesty or "legalization" for millions of illegal immigrants is fueling the interest. So are cultural influences, such as the rise of Hispanic music stars and the increase in households where English isn't the principal language.

"Immigration is coming back on the agenda," says Steven Camarota, research director for the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington. Talk of immigrant law reform, some kind of guest-worker program, and even discussion of college tuition assistance and access to driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants are all boosting interest.

"There's a latent public anxiety about the impact all of this has on the country, so it's not surprising that with so many related concerns attracting attention, immigration is going to pop up," says Mr. Camarota, whose center opposes broad immigration liberalization.

Last week, Mexican officials meeting in Washington with Secretary of State Colin Powell and Attorney General John Ashcroft suggested that a plan revising US immigration policy might not be ironed out in time for an announcement during Mexican President Vicente Fox's state visit next month. But Mr. Powell indicated that a likely outcome is a guest-worker program that could result in legal- resident status for participants. That move, however, would not satisfy pro-immigration forces.

The public response to immigration, meanwhile, is like the proverbial half glass of water. Most Americans are neither stiffly opposed to nor passionately supportive of immigration, but are often torn between what they see as the pluses and minuses of a phenomenon that is inextricably linked to what America is.

Over the past decade, the country's longest time of economic expansion, national surveys have shown a remarkable shift to a positive public view of immigration. A survey by the University of Chicago showed a steep drop in the number of Americans who favored cutting the number of immigrants - from 62 percent in 1994 to 40 percent in 2000. "What's really significant is that opposing immigration shifted from the majority to the minority view," says Tom Smith, the survey's director. …