Protesters march against Arizona's illegal immigration law, SB1070, Wednesday, April 25, 2012, in Phoenix.

Protesters march against Arizona’s illegal immigration law, SB1070, Wednesday, April 25, 2012, in Phoenix. ((AP Photo/Matt York))

Decision 2012: Why immigration matters

The issue:

Illegal immigration is a decades-old problem. With an estimated 11.5 million undocumented immigrants living, and in many cases working, in the U.S. the question remains: What do we do? Lax enforcement potentially leads to more undocumented immigrants competing with U.S. citizens for jobs and some social services. But a too-tight policy could mean farmers and others in industries that rely on the cheaper labor of undocumented immigrants are left begging for workers, passing higher costs on to consumers or going out of business altogether.

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Where they stand:

President Barack Obama has pushed for the DREAM Act, a path to citizenship for many young undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children. Efforts to pass the bill have repeatedly failed, most notably in 2010 when it stalled in a Democratic-led Senate. In June, Obama announced a plan to delay deportations for many undocumented immigrants who would have benefited from the DREAM Act for up to two years and let them get work permits.

RELATED: Obama immigration stance locks in hispanic support

Mitt Romney has said that as president he would veto the DREAM Act should it ever cross his desk, though during the second presidential debate he said he supports a path to legal status for young undocumented immigrants. He would honor any work permits issued under Obama’s plan to delay deportations for many young undocumented immigrants but wouldn’t accept new applications for the program. Romney favors completing a towering steel fence along the Mexican border, in addition to the 650 miles already constructed, and opposes letting undocumented immigrant students pay in-state tuition at state universities.

RELATED:  Mitt Romney would allow waiver to dreamers

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Why it matters:

Illegal immigration has slowed in recent years, with the Border Patrol recently recording the fewest arrests in almost 40 years. But many people worry that the Mexican border, the most popular crossing point for newly arriving undocumented immigrants, still isn’t secure more than a decade after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In the last several years, the government has spent billions building a fence, doubling the number of Border Patrol agents and adding a slew of high-tech gadgets to stop undocumented immigrants. The numbers tell a compelling story: In the 2011 budget year, the Border Patrol arrested about 327,000 people at the Mexican border. In 2006, agents made more than 1 million such arrests.

Obama’s administration also deported a record number of people last year, nearly 400,000. The government has been shifting its focus to finding and deporting criminal immigrants and those who otherwise pose a security threat.

There’s room for debate about what has led to the steep drop in arrests; it’s quite clear the struggling economy has made it less attractive to enter the U.S. Still, Republicans insist any illegal crossings are too many. And there’s broad agreement that the border should be more secure.

As for undocumented immigrants already in the country, there’s no easy answer.

In 1986, under President Ronald Reagan, Congress approved an amnesty that granted millions of immigrants legal status while prohibiting the hiring of undocumented immigrants.

Hiring has continued in many sectors, notably farming. And some lawmakers worry that agriculture would sink if there were an aggressive effort to verify that all farmworkers could legally work in the U.S.

Various overhauls of immigration policy have been proposed since the early 2000s. But the debate often boils down to Republicans wanting the border secure before anything else, and Democrats pushing for that security and for a path to legalization at once. The result has been a legislative stalemate.

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