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Republicans No Longer Focused on Immigration

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Many Illinois Republicans have been pressing hard for tougher immigration enforcement. Pressing hard, that is, until recently. Immigration has received little attention in the Chicago area's hottest Congressional races this fall. Republicans say that's because the economy has taken center stage. But advocates on both sides of the immigration issue say there's another reason.

When Republican Jim Oberweis ran for U.S. Senate four years ago, he focused to a great extent on immigration. Here's one of that campaign's TV ads. Oberweis is hovering over Chicago's Soldier Field in a helicopter.

OBERWEIS IN AD: Illegal aliens are coming here to take American workers' jobs...Ten thousand illegal aliens a day, enough to fill Soldier Field every single week.

Two years ago, many Republican candidates for Illinois Congressional seats spoke out for more deportations and border enforcement. Just last year, a speech on the U.S. House floor by Republican Congressman Mark Kirk urged the United States to ship condoms to Mexico. Kirk said lowering Mexico's birth rate would strengthen that country's economy...

KIRK: A slower rate of growth would also reduce the long-term illegal immigration pressure on America's borders.

Now Oberweis and Kirk are battling Democrats in two of the country's mostly closely watched Congressional races. But neither has been talking much about immigration.

HOYT: The Republicans in northern Illinois are finally starting to learn how to count.

That's Joshua Hoyt of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. The coalition has been coordinating citizenship, voter-registration and get-out-the-vote drives in immigrant neighborhoods across the Chicago area. A new report by the coalition says Illinois now has more than three-quarters of a million foreign-born citizens and that most live in Chicago's suburbs. Hoyt says nearly one of every eight registered voters in Kane County is now Latino.

HOYT: What that means is that when Jim Oberweis flies over Soldier Field in a helicopter bashing illegal immigrants and it's interpreted by the Mexican community that he's bashing them, they're going to turn out in record numbers and vote against him.

FROM: It's not a conscious decision to not discuss immigration.

Oberweis spokesman David From says voters already know where this Republican stands on immigration. From says Oberweis is focusing instead on the economy.

FROM: Particularly in paid media, you can only talk about so many issues, and so we decided to talk about the issue that Jim's experience is very pertinent to and that the voters are certainly discussing themselves.

ambi: Clipboard pages

SANCHEZ: We're working on the East Side, one of our targeted precincts with the most Latino citizens.

Sonia Sánchez, 18, is leading a nonpartisan get-out-the-vote canvass in her hometown, Aurora. That's the largest city in Illinois's 14th Congressional District, where Oberweis is running. And it's grown more Latino over the years. The ICIRR is coordinating this canvass and others like it in battleground Congressional districts surrounding Chicago.

ambi: Door knocking

SANCHEZ: Hola, Señora. Buenas noches.

A middle-aged woman answers this door. The woman says she's not eligible to vote, but promises to remind her son who's fighting in Iraq to cast his ballot.

SANCHEZ: Qué bueno, Señora!...

Latino voters like Sánchez and the soldier could weigh heavily in the suburban races.

DANE: It is a huge voting bloc and both parties are having difficulties knowing how to approach it.

Bob Dane speaks for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which pushes for tougher immigration enforcement.

DANE: The economy has provided the candidates political cover to dodge this issue.

At the National Republican Congressional Committee, spokesman Ken Spain says the party has not advised candidates to quit talking about immigration, just to keep their district's voters in mind.

SPAIN: You better find a way to ingratiate yourself with the different voting coalitions from within that district if you want to be able to put together one to win.

ambi: Canvass

SANCHEZ: Two “yeses”? Great!

Sonia Sánchez, the canvass coordinator, is not campaigning for one party or the other. She says her mission is encouraging the immigrant community to show it has a voice by participating in Tuesday's election.

SANCHEZ: We just want to have them all come out to the polls. We tell them exactly where to go, so they don't miss out.

The Democratic and Republican contenders here are hoping for a good share of those votes.

I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

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