Although Barack Obama and John McCain have barely touched on the issue of immigration, in towns across the South and country the immigration war is at a high boil.

Laurel, Mississippi is still reeling from the roundup of 481 undocumented workers at Howard Industries, now detained in Jena, Louisiana (yes, that Jena). Two North Carolina counties have also seen the immigration issue explode onto local and national headlines.

In Alamance County, the sheriff is defending his zealous application of the Section 287(g) program, which enables local law enforcement to begin deportation proceedings for residents picked up for minor crimes. The issue came to a head when a local librarian traveling with her children was detained in August:

Last month, an Alamance County deputy arrested a Hispanic woman after a traffic stop on Interstate 85, leaving her three children in a car along the highway. Their father picked them up eight hours later.

Sheriff Terry Johnson adamantly defended the operation, saying that immigration of undocumented residents "is absurd and goes against the very moral fiber our country was founded upon."

Yesterday, another North Carolina sheriff -- Steve Bizzell in Johnston County -- "apologized" for a litany of comments he made about Latino residents. In comments to the News & Observer, Bizzell referred to them as "drunk Mexicans," condemned them for "breeding like rabbits" and spreading a culture of violence, and stating "Mexicans are trashy."

Bizzell made an apology, but for many that's not good enough. "I don't want an apology, I want his badge," said Tony Asion of El Pueblo, a Latino advocacy group and police veteran.

Such local immigration wars will continue to rage as long as Washington fails to act. But McCain and Obama have run away from the hot-button issue, and neither is proposing anything resembling an effective immigration policy.

Immigration remains hot in down-ticket races: for example, the Section 287(g) program has become a flashpoint in the N.C. Senate race between North Carolina Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R), who has worked closely with Bizzell and is a big advocate of the program, and her challenger Kay Hagan (D).

But by narrowly treating immigration as a law enforcement problem, that debate entirely misses the real issues at hand. Like most issues, immigration isn't something that can be resolved by arresting people.

For one, as the Center for American Progress showed in a recent study, deportation is an extremely costly policy: over $41 billion a year if applied to all of those in the country without documentation -- more than the entire annual budget of the Department of Homeland Security.

But most importantly, it's a policy doomed to failure, because it does nothing to address the reasons why people come to the United States -- which often is the direct result of U.S. policies abroad.

Texas populist Jim Hightower captured these realities well in a February 7, 2008 edition of the Hightower Lowdown:

[I]n the last 15 years, Mexico's longstanding system of sustaining its huge population of poor citizens (including small self-sufficient farms, jobs in state-owned industries and subsidies for such essentials as tortillas) has been scuttled at the insistence of U.S. banks, corporations, government officials and "free market" ideologues.

In the name of "modernizing" the Mexican economy, such giants as Citigroup, Wal-Mart, Tyson Foods and GE -in cahoots with the plutocrats and oligarchs of Mexico -have laid waste to that country's grass-roots economy, destroying the already-meager livelihoods of millions.

The 1994 imposition of NAFTA was particularly devastating. Just as Bill Clinton and the corporate elites did here, Mexico's ruling elites touted NAFTA as a magic elixir that would generate growth, create jobs, raise wages and eliminate the surge of Mexican migrants into the United States. They were horribly wrong:

* Economic growth in Mexico has been anemic since '94, and the benefits of any growth have gone overwhelmingly to the wealthiest families.

* Since NAFTA, Mexico has created less than a third of the millions of decent jobs it needs.

* Average factory wages in Mexico have dropped by more than 5 percent under NAFTA.

* Unemployment has jumped, and unskilled workers are paid only $5 a day.

* U.S. agribusiness corporations have more than doubled their shipment of subsidized crops into Mexico, busting the price that indigenous farmers got for their production and displacing some 2 million peasant farmers from their land.

* Huge agribusiness operations, many owned by U.S. investors, now control Mexican agricultural production and pay farmworkers under $2 an hour.

* Since NAFTA passed, there has been a flood of business bankruptcies and takeovers in Mexico as predatory U.S. chains have moved in. U.S. corporations now control 40 percent of the country's formal jobs, with Wal-Mart reigning as the No. 1 employer.

Nineteen million more Mexicans live in poverty today than when NAFTA was passed."

Hightower goes on to observe that the fears and insecurities communities in the U.S. are feeling -- aside from racist prejudices -- have little to do with immigration:

But even if there were no illegal workers in our country--none--the fragility would remain, for poor Mexican laborers are not the ones who:

* Downsized and offshored our middle-class jobs.
* Perverted our bankruptcy laws to let corporations abrogate their union contracts.
* Stopped enforcement of America's wage and hour laws.
* Perverted the National Labor Relations Board into an anti-worker tool for corporations.
* Illegally reclassified millions of employees as "independent contractors," leaving them with no benefits or labor rights.
* Subverted the right of workers to organize.
* Turned a blind eye to the re-emergence in America of sweatshops and child labor in everything from the clothing industry to Wal-Mart.
* Made good healthcare a luxury item.
* Let rich campaign donors take over both political parties.
* Passed by hook and crook a continuing series of global-trade scams to enrich the few and knock down the many.

Powerless immigrants didn't do these things to us. The richest, most-powerful, best-connected corporate interests did them.

Until Washington leaders -- including McCain and Obama -- are willing to talk honestly and take on these, the real issues behind immigration and our fragile economic situation, we'll be locked in a dangerous, costly and ineffective policy that depends on defining millions of people as de facto criminals. And the casualties of the immigration war will continue to grow.