Last may, a CBS/New York Times poll found that 69 percent of Americans want to see the country’s illegal immigrants prosecuted and deported. But, the next month, NBC and The Wall Street Journal released a poll suggesting that, in their heart of hearts, 85 percent of Americans recognize that summarily removing 10 or 20 million people isn’t realistic.

Those two numbers provide a pretty good snapshot of the nation’s confused and confusing immigration debate, including its contradictions. Some folks talk tough about the rule of law, but worry about splitting families by the happenstance of citizenship. Some business owners depend on foreign workers; others are outraged that their competitors hire illegal immigrants without consequence.

These debates, and many others, will come up as Americans pick a president. John McCain made it out of his party’s primaries after being roughed up over his immigration plan, whose concepts most Americans supported. Democrats have so far parried the issue, but that probably won’t be the case in many congressional races and the general election.

Through it all, close looks will be necessary. Clint Hendler, a CJR assistant editor, spoke about the challenges and changes to the immigration beat with Dianne Solís of The Dallas Morning News. Previously, Solís worked for The Wall Street Journal, including a stint in the paper’s Mexico City bureau. In 2007, her reporting on immigration drew the attention of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, which named her print journalist of the year.

What’s different now from the early part of the decade?
We haven’t seen a crackdown this severe since the 1950s. In the 1950s, the U.S. government had a deportation effort that was bluntly called Operation Wetback, and the estimates of how many people were deported or self-deported then is wild in its range, from 100,000 to 1.3 million. In the last fiscal year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement deported or repatriated more than a quarter-million people. And those figures are separate from what the border patrol did. That’s a large increase, probably a doubling, from the numbers we had in 2001 and 2002. They’re also going after employers like never before in recent history. Since 1986, it’s been illegal to knowingly hire an illegal immigrant, but that was enforced largely by civil fines. And then it wasn’t enforced much at all. Now they’re going after employers with criminal cases.

And beyond that federal crackdown, there are many people out there who are very angry over illegal immigration—especially Mexican immigration—and the way it’s changed communities and changed culture. Because of the rise in technology, they’ve been able to really spread their gospel to others. So we have a very cantankerous and sometimes uncivil public debate going on in community meeting halls, on talk radio, on television, and in political campaigns.

In the last, say, twenty-five years, the debate has changed in its content and its divisiveness. The rhetoric is much harsher than it has been in a long, long time. I was just looking back at the history of the first immigration law in the United States, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. What was said about the Chinese back then was really very rough and even racist. I think that at times we may be approaching that.

How does the time you spent in Mexico City affect your work?
In immigration, we frequently talk about push-pull factors. I have a real sense of what pushes people out and what they’re coming to. I’ve also seen that in many ways our labor market is fused: construction workers in Texas come from Guanajuato; crab pickers in the Carolinas come from an area called Los Mochis on Mexico’s Pacific coast. People just move—or, before the crackdown, were moving—with great fluidity.

But once I came back, and I could compare the way places had changed, I saw how pronounced it had become. In Dallas, you could hear, from the accents, that there were a lot of people from Monterrey and from Guanajuato. It had changed so dramatically and so quickly.

You write often about immigrants who face deportation and would rather stay out of the limelight. How do you explain your mission and earn their trust?
I speak Spanish and I lived in Mexico, so when I speak to somebody who comes from Guanajuato, I reassure them that I know where they came from and I’ve been there many times. If they come from Tepito, a neighborhood in Mexico City, I’ve been there many times.

try to have a discussion about both the negative consequences and the benefits of talking to me. I try to explain to them that the public needs to hear their story, their version of why they came or what kind of challenges they’re faced with.

Clint Hendler is the managing editor of Mother Jones, and a former deputy editor of CJR.