The U.S. House of Representatives is moving toward a vote on legislation supporters assert will be a first step in controlling illegal immigration and improving U.S. border security. But Democrat as well as Republican opponents say the bill is not an effective way to address such problems, and the Senate will not be dealing with the issue until next year.
Immigration reform is one of President Bush's top domestic priorities, and he hopes Congress will act next year to pass wide-ranging legislation.
In the meantime, lawmakers from the president's Republican party, aware of the sensitivity of immigration issues with American voters, decided to forge ahead with legislation they say is urgently needed.
The measure is aimed at addressing the flow of illegal immigrants, of whom an estimated 10 to 11 million are now in the United States.
The Republican-crafted House bill would require all businesses to verify that all their workers are in the United States legally, and increase fines for those hiring illegal aliens.
The legislation also proposes that immigrants who re-enter the United States after being deported would face criminal rather than civil penalties.
It would also authorize new border patrol agents and increase surveillance, especially along the border with Mexico.
In debate that began Thursday, Democrats called the bill too harsh.
"This provision would turn millions of immigrants currently here into criminals, hindering their ability to acquire any legal status, and would effectively frustrate the proposals that would provide real immigration reform," said House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi.
Some Republicans joined in expressing frustration with the legislation. Here is Arizona Congressman Jim Kolbe. "The bill before us today does nothing to solve the real problems of immigration. In fact, it is worse than nothing. It is worse than nothing because it tries to fool the public. It tries to pull the wool over their eyes. It pretends we're doing something to secure our border when in fact we are doing nothing except throw words and money at the problem," he said.
The bill's core supporters call it a step toward getting some control over illegal immigration and augmenting anti-terrorism steps under another law, the Patriot Act. "Isn't that what it is all about, accountability? Those who break our immigration laws should be held accountable. Those who hire illegal aliens should be held accountable. And those who turn the other way and claim there is no problem should be held accountable," said Rep. Tom Price, a Georgia Republican.
The House legislation highlights divisions on illegal immigration within President Bush's party.
Some 90 House Republicans want even stronger measures, with one lawmaker, Colorado Republican Tom Tancredo, urging construction of a fence along the entire Southwest U.S. border with Mexico.
Even if the House approves the immigration and border security bill, there will be no action before the year ends in the Senate, where a similar bill has been introduced.
And neither the House nor Senate bills deal with the issue of a guest-worker program, which President Bush has proposed as a key part of immigration reform.