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.

Two or three years ago, there were people who had no problems telling me their full names—or what they said were their full names. That’s changed. People don’t want to give their last names now. We do allow people who are here without work authorization to speak using just their first name, but some don’t even want to give their first names.

There is a danger, but there are people who speak out and stand up for themselves. They have a great deal of frustration because they believe the Mexican, Salvadoran, or Honduran government isn’t speaking up for them.

Is it also harder to find employers who hire people without documents willing to speak?
Absolutely. It’s gotten harder, even just in the last three months, because of the crackdown: there were 4,900 worksite arrests by the federal government in the last fiscal year. That was more than a tripling from two years ago.

I have to throw the net out much wider. I’m going to trade groups that have somebody who’s willing to speak to the press. But I don’t really want the executive director of a trade group. It’s always better to have a flesh-and-blood employer, who’s out there on the factory floor, in the kitchen, or in the field. Their voices are really important and powerful. They’re very frustrated right now, and they want a fix.

Do you cover non-Spanish-speaking immigrants?
Sometimes. I’ve done some political-asylum cases, with folks from Palestine who were stateless, which is an incredible concept. I’ve been following a particularly difficult case of an Albanian who doesn’t want to go back to Albania, and finding out that there’s what’s considered a fairly large Albanian community in Texas.

What are some of the themes and stories on your beat that you have an eye on or find yourself dipping back into again and again?
Both sides believe in the rule of law—except for the laws that they want to change. Those here illegally would much prefer to be here legally, but for many of them, there aren’t many legal routes, particularly if they come from Latin America. Some of those who want illegal immigrants to respect the rule of law and to self-deport also want restrictions on the current U.S. system of legal immigration. They’d even like to change birthright citizenship by either changing the Fourteenth Amendment or the Immigration and Naturalization Act. They believe this would put an end to what they call “anchor babies.”

Another important story is the rise of so-called mixed-status families. You’ve got families in which somebody’s a U.S. citizen, somebody’s a legal permanent resident, and somebody’s here illegally. It causes all kinds of problems when they’re arrested on a traffic violation and end up getting their migration status scrutinized. They have to make all kinds of contingency plans for what they’re going to do if they’re sent back suddenly. And some of the family is left behind and maybe all of the income for the family, or half the income for the family, goes out the door.

Finally, I think we’re going to see more and more of a push to get local cops to do immigration policing. There are police departments in major cities that have said that they will not ask about immigration status because they want victims or people who have seen criminal activity to come forward without fear of being hauled away. But there are other people who are extremely angry that they cannot depend on local cops to go after illegal immigrants. That’s going to be a flashpoint.

Are we in a period in which there’s outsized interest in immigration, or will this beat always be necessary?
I think that it is a story that will be with us for quite some time because of globalization and because of the nature of immigration itself—it’s very, very hard to stop. One magnet is simply family reunification: the need, the want, to be with your family. And many, many people have their families now in the U.S. It’s a hot-button issue here right now, and that’s driving the need for more coverage. It’s a big story on our presidential beat, for example. It’s a big story in our criminal-justice coverage. It’s a big story in our education coverage.

There’s a lot of sensitive language around immigration. What should the word “amnesty” mean in copy?
I think it means different things to different people, and because of that lack of clarity, it’s something that we avoid to some extent. It’s a legalization program for those here illegally. And there are people who consider the legalization programs within the McCain/Kennedy proposal as amnesty, and there are those who said it was earned legalization.

I recently went back to my old Wall Street Journal stories from ’86 on amnesty and the legalization program, and I had to smile because then people, too, were saying, “Don’t call it amnesty.”

So what did you call the ’86 program?
We started off talking about the legalization program, and then we called it amnesty, and then we called it both. And then we called it amnistía, which is the term in Spanish.

Let’s try another term. Is there a distinction between “illegal immigrant” and “undocumented immigrant”?
We use them interchangeably, but we use “illegal immigrant” more often. But many advocates think there’s a distinction. Some believe that anybody who’s here without papers is illegal, and that we should say that. And others believe that that’s a very harsh term, that no human being is illegal, and if you have illegal immigrants you must also have, by logical extension, illegal employers. Others parse it more finely and say that there are many people who legally come to the United States on a visa and then overstay that visa; so since they did not come over illegally, it’s wrong to call them illegal immigrants. Then others will say, “Well, wait a minute, they’re out of legal status now, so they’re therefore illegal.” It just goes on and on.

On the term “undocumented,” there are employment lawyers who will say, “Let’s get real, folks; everyone has documents, they’re just false documents. Or they’re just not their documents. And you know that’s the way it is in your workforce.”

What about the word “illegal” or “illegals”?
There was a time when many people in the industry used “illegals,” as a noun, in print. We have a style rule against that. It’s an adjective. But the reality is that many of the immigrants will use that adjective as a noun to describe themselves.

You are a Mexican-American from California. Does anyone prejudge you or your reporting because of who you are?
I think that some people do. I think it depends on their life experience, how they live, if they’re very isolated, if they’re not. It’s kind of like, when I was in Mexico, people would ask me, “Well, in the land that gave us the macho, did you find being a woman a detriment?” It was both an asset and a detriment to me because for every man who didn’t want to speak to me because I was a woman, there was a man who wanted to speak to me because I was a woman. You just move on.

Does it ever come through in any of the aggressive e-mail you receive?
Sometimes it does. It’s odd—it does for reporters whose bylines are more readily identified with Latin America. Perhaps if my first name were Guadalupe rather than Dianne, it would ring more bells.

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