NIAGARA FALLS, Ontario — In the summer of 1954, a petite, middle-aged woman sat in the back seat of her son’s Pontiac beside her husband of nearly 40 years, unaware that her U.S. citizenship was about to be challenged.
Returning from a vacation trip to Canada, the family car was crowded with children, grandchildren, luggage and leftover groceries when it pulled alongside the U.S. Border Patrol agent to answer the usual mundane questions about re-entering the country.
Seconds later, the grandmother of 10 found that her answer, slightly laced with an Italian accent, did not allow her re-entry into the country she loved dearly.
She entered the United States legally with her parents through Ellis Island in 1907. Yet she never applied for citizenship, assuming that marrying a naturalized American automatically made her a citizen.
She spent the next four days in a well-worn boardinghouse in this crowded vacation town, until Ellis Island officials confirmed her legal entry 50 years earlier.
Once home, she immediately applied for and eventually received U.S.
Twenty-two years later when she died, her citizenship papers were neatly folded in her pocketbook beside her hospital bed; she never went anywhere without them — not out of fear but out of pride.
That’s a point lost on opponents of the Arizona law, who scream about racial profiling: Most immigrants here legally consider it a point of pride to carry their citizenship papers.
Only if you are here illegally are you likely to cry foul.
"Every person entering this country by law is deemed an intending immigrant," says U.S. Customs and Border Protection Chief Kevin Corsaro at the border between Canada and New York.
The law, he stressed, clearly states that a traveler must prove he or she is allowed to enter the United States.
Illegal immigration is a perilous issue for both parties in the coming midterm election, primarily because of Arizona’s illegal-immigration law and the Obama administration’s court challenge of it.
Poll after poll shows a majority of Americans support Arizona’s law and see it as an issue of security and jobs.
"Those who are against the law see it as an issue of racism," says Keystone College political science professor Jeff Brauer.
Those of every political stripe agree that the federal government has been lackadaisical in its immigration enforcement.
Brauer says the broken enforcement system strikes at the heart of America’s vital security and economic interests as well as its values.
But many candidates would rather not confront it in this already tumultuous election cycle, particularly incumbents widely seen as having failed to address the issue.
The popularity of Arizona’s law and the unpopularity of the federal lawsuit alarm Democratic governors and gubernatorial candidates in particular. The issue dominated a private meeting between Democratic governors and White House staff during the National Governors Association meeting in Boston. Nineteen Democratic gubernatorial seats (including Pennsylvania’s) are up for grabs this fall.
The White House defends its position by claiming the issue is not about security, jobs or race. It argues that Arizona’s law violates the constitutional notion that immigration falls under federal, not state, authority.
Brauer believes President Obama "is using this … to fulfill campaign promises to the Hispanic community and to solidify it as a loyal part of the Democratic base."
So the White House seems willing to trade short-term electoral defeat (possibly losing its majorities in Congress) for support of Obama’s re-election bid in 2012 and the party’s long-term strength.
That helps Republicans, Brauer explains, by enhancing their trustworthiness on security matters with their base, as well as with independents and many Democrats.
Besides, for voters, illegal immigration is almost always linked to jobs.
"With jobs being the most vital issue in the midterm elections, the image of Republicans protecting jobs from those coming to the U.S.
illegally is most definitely of great benefit to the (Republican) party," Brauer says.
Frances Lonetti Zito never complained about those four days she spent in border limbo 56 summers ago.
And her retelling of the story to her grandchildren invariably ended with her pulling citizenship papers from her pocketbook, her face glowing with pride.