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Road to November: Immigration as a campaign issue

Like many communities in Wisconsin, Merrill was hit hard by the recession. The area's paper mills, and door and window manufacturers are still recovering. The economy often dominates political conversation.

Like many communities in Wisconsin, Merrill was hit hard by the recession. The area's paper mills, and door and window manufacturers are still recovering. The economy often dominates political conversation.

Wednesday, a group of men met at the Village Tree for coffee, pancakes or Mountain Dew. They meet almost every day to talk politics, sports, and other important things, like town gossip. They talked about jobs and the economy in the local community, but they also brought up another matter that hasn't received a lot of attention - immigration.

Usually during political discussion they tend to agree to disagree because they're such good friends, and because differing opinions make for better conversation. They did all agree that Mexican immigrants are important to the local manufacturing and dairy industries.

When asked about immigration, retired high school history teacher and Governor Romney supporter Garth Swanson says it's not a big issue. "I think they integrate well in the communities. Most of the people who come here, come here to work and they do have jobs."

He says the only complaint he hears is that some immigrants use government services.

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Across town at the Holy Cross Convent, Sister Mary Thomas holds a different opinion. Along with other Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross, she helped form Comunidad Hispana in Merrill, a community space for immigrants. Immigration reform is a major issue for her in this presidential election. Sister Mary Thomas says the next president has to do more to treat each immigrant as an individual and not develop blanket policies.

"You know they say they have done things and I'm sure they have, but we don't feel it on a local level." She says the DREAM Act could help because it might lessen stigma. She says she thinks many hold the belief that most Mexicans are in the country illegally.

She'll be voting for President Obama because she says he's honest and smart, and she doesn't trust Mitt Romney.

Over the years, Sister Mary Thomas has helped many immigrants assimilate and find jobs. Brenda Ruiz-Anderson is one of them. In a busy McDonalds near the edge of town, she proudly talked about how she's found a much better life in Wisconsin than in Veracruz where she was born.

She married an American about two months ago, and she and her husband are working through the process for her to get a Social Security number. Ruiz-Anderson and her family came to the U.S. without immigration papers.

With an enthusiastic smile, she explained that she would love to vote, but can't. If she could, she says she would vote for President Obama. She likes what he has done with the DREAM Act, which will offer her younger brother who graduated high school in Merrill a path to citizenship.

Ruiz-Andreson says she thinks it is important for Americans to realize that not all Mexicans are drug dealers. "People come here because they want a better life for their families," she said. "The reason people come here illegally is because it's really hard to get a permit to come here."

She says if there were an easier path to get a permit to work, it would be better for everybody.

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Down the street, Bhadresh Mehda owns the Econo Lodge in Merrill. He emigrated legally from India 24 years ago. He says as important as immigration issues are, he's voting for Obama because he wants the next president to encourage growth of the manufacturing industry.

He says job creation works to solve both illegal immigration and economic problems. "Once we provide jobs, then we can open more immigrants to come to this country."

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