US split by need for cheap labour and a fear of outsiders

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No subject in the US is more electric at the moment than immigration. A wave of fear about the consequences of allowing millions of people, most of them Mexicans, to live and work without legal residency papers has, in turn, sparked an unprecedented immigrant solidarity movement.

Half a million people marched in Los Angeles last Saturday in opposition to a proposed law that would redefine 12 million undocumented immigrants as felons and build a wall halfway along the 2,000-mile Mexican border.

Immigration now looks likely to dominate this year's governor's election in California, where the country's most visible immigrant, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is standing for a second term. And it is also emerging as the number one issue in November's congressional mid-terms.

Already, the Republicans are split between the immigration hardliners, who support militarisation of the border and a denial of health, education and other public services to immigrants, and the old-fashioned big business apologists who see immigrants as a vital and irreplaceable source of cheap labour.

The House passed its bill proposing the mass deportation last December. In the wake of the recent protests, the Senate has been leaning towards a more moderate line: inaugurating a guest-worker programme and stopping the futile cat-and-mouse games that have led to more than 3,000 migrant deaths in the desert in the past 12 years.

If there is any agreement, it is that the current system is broken. If it's true that the immigrant labour is needed, then it is illogical, if not also immoral, to keep these workers in the legal shadows. If it's true that low wages for undocumented workers are creating a more precarious work environment and fewer jobs for native-born Americans, then better, more workable enforcement systems need to be developed.

The situation has been complicated by a surge in hostility towards outsiders since 11 September 2001. Elected officials and right-wing pundits like to argue that uncontrolled immigration is a recipe for crime, if not also terrorist infiltration.

But the best economic data, from the National Academy of Sciences, suggests immigrants, both legal and illegal, are net contributors to the US economy, to the social security retirement fund and to the treasury.