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Immigration may be key issue in N.C.

They are the fastest-growing minority group in the United States. They comprise more than 15 percent of the total population. They will be one of the country's most powerful voting blocs for election seasons to come.

But in this year's presidential election, neither John McCain nor Barack Obama has taken a strong stand on an issue that is of interest to nearly all of the 45.5 million Hispanics in the United States.

"Given that you have two candidates that are more alike than they are different on immigration, the broader issue is whether immigration is going to make much of a difference in the election," said Noah Pickus, associate research professor of public policy studies and Nannerl O. Keohane director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

In North Carolina-where, according to estimates from a 2005 Pew Hispanic Center research report for 2002-2004, 300,000 undocumented immigrants make up about half of the state's foreign-born population-illegal immigration is an issue that is not taken lightly. Both candidates for governor have expressed their opposition to allowing illegal immigrants to enroll in community colleges.

Hispanics from immigrant backgrounds said they were struggling to sort through the political rhetoric to decide which presidential candidate offered the best stance on immigration policy.

Searching for a National Solution

North Carolina's response to illegal immigrants may have been incited by the federal government's failure to address the problem.

Congress' inaction has shifted the burden of reform from the national level to state and city governments, Pickus said.

"It's not local communities who decide who immigrates, it's a border issue," said sophomore Allie Hayes, president of the Scholars' Latino Initiative at Duke.

Hayes, among others, noted the need for a reform policy that addresses the challenge on all fronts.

McCain and Obama both support "comprehensive immigration reform"-including greater enforcement, guest worker programs and a legalization process for undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.

Some students with ties to immigrant communities said the federal government needed to step in because perceptions about immigration vary widely and often distort local policy.

"The debate is very different here.... The idea of building a wall, people kind of laugh at that in Texas," said Hayes, a Dallas native. She added that in Texas, citizens are aware that the foundation of their state's economy would collapse without immigrants.

Sophomore Catalina Hidalgo, who is from Miami, also said the contrasts between Florida and N.C. immigration dialogue were distinct.

"In Miami, Hispanics run the city," she said. "It's a very different dynamic in the sense that when you hear 'Latino' you don't think farm owner-you think business owner."

Courting the Hispanic vote

Although President George W. Bush was re-elected in 2004 with an unusually high level of Hispanic support for a Republican candidate, Jacob Vigdor, associate professor of public policy studies and economics, said the Republican party was rapidly losing those votes.

"They are going to have to do some hard thinking about whether they can build a coalition in 21st century America that excludes this rapidly growing group," he said.

Serun Alberto, a Mexican immigrant who makes his living as a butcher on North Roxboro Street, said, speaking in Spanish, that he thought most Hispanics would begin to see eye-to-eye with McCain because of his conservative views and greater experience.

Alberto, an undecided voter, said immigration is not a big issue in the election because neither candidate has emphasized it.

Outside the butcher shop, a different view was expressed by the N.C.-based Latino newspaper Qué Pasa. A recent headline reads "Los Republicanos no quieren a inmigrantes"-"The Republicans don't like immigrants."

In an editorial written in Spanish, General Editor Orlando Gamboa, who declined to comment for this story, said the problem of illegal immigration received little attention at both parties' nominating conventions.

"With McCain there isn't a reason to hope. With Obama, there is hope for a solution," he wrote in Spanish.

Chase Olivieri contributed reporting.


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