Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

A Rising Issue

Magazine article St. Louis Journalism Review

A Rising Issue

Article excerpt

What's the most important problem facing this country today?" The Gallup Poll has been asking that open-ended question every month for decades. In April, the war in Iraq topped the list with 25 percent of the respondents naming it. No surprise there.

What is astonishing is what finishes second: immigration / illegal aliens at 19 percent. That's well ahead of the next two: fuel / oil prices (11 percent) and the economy (10 percent). A year ago, immigration was an asterisk, the standard symbol for less than 0.5 percent. Now it is near the top of the chart.

A Fox News poll, also done in April, has 60 percent replying that illegal immigration is a "very serious" problem and another 30 percent saying it is a "somewhat serious" problem. The distribution remains much the same for Democrats, Republicans and Independents. In the same survey, 13 percent say immigration will be "the most important (issue) in deciding their vote for Congress this fall," fourth behind the economy (20 percent), Iraq (19 percent) and health care (17 percent) and ahead of Social Security (9 percent) and terrorism (9 percent).

An April Pew poll shows that immigration has captured the public's media attention. Asked, "What is the first news story that comes to mind when you think about what's been in the news lately?" Iraq is first at 31 percent but immigration is second at 15 percent.

What has catapulted immigration to the front burner on the nation's public policy stove? Reality is part of the explanation, of course. The number of illegal immigrants now tops 10 million, close to one out of every 25 U.S. residents. The immigration issue also has multiple facets. If illegal immigrants are expelled, who will pick the crops? If they stay, under what conditions, if any, can they qualify for U.S. citizenship? Should there be a guest worker program?

The list is long.

But other issues have greater numbers (more than 40 million Americans, for example, have no health insurance) and equal, if not greater, complexity (e.g., what would constitute radal justice in America and how can it be achieved?). But more than most issues, immigration has one key made-for-media ingredient: conflict. So immigration is pushing other policy choices off the front pages and the cable news shows.

Better yet for the media, it is conflict along multiple dimensions--division within each political party, especially the Republicans; division between President George W. Bush and the House of Representatives; division among ethnic groups; division between those who employ undocumented aliens and U.S. citizens who might want those jobs; division between states with high levels of illegal immigrants and those with few in this category. …

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