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US, Mexico Debate Illegal Immigrant Issue - 2002-03-22

A new study by the Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are now nearly eight million illegal immigrants in the United States. The study concludes there has been an overall increase in undocumented workers due to the decade-long U.S economic boom.

The report was released to coincide with talks in Monterrey, Mexico between President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox, which were set to involve, among other issues, immigration policy. The report says almost 60 percent are from Mexico, and another 15 percent are from other Central American countries.

The center's director, Roberto Suro, says Mexico and the Bush administration are interested in reviving talks on providing legal status to these immigrants. He says there are two basic issues the governments need to address. "One would be an effort to find a way to give legal status to undocumented people who are already here," he says. "And the other would be a way to regulate future flows, either through some kind of temporary worker program, or a way in which people could come and work here, and earn the right to stay long term."

Mr. Suro says some immigration advocates want to make all undocumented workers legal. "The advocates of a complete legalization program, or a full amnesty, would say you want to wipe the slate clean - you want to take everybody out of the shadows, and legalize everybody, and, sort of, start fresh," he says.

Mr. Suro says others advocate only legalizing workers who have been in the United States for a certain number of years, and have shown their desires to become permanent residents.

In 1986, the U.S. Congress passed an Immigration Control and Reform Act that gave amnesty to illegal immigrants who could prove five years of residency. The act also imposed sanctions on employers who hired illegal workers, in an attempt to deter illegal immigration. But by 1992, according to some estimates, about 250,000 undocumented people were entering the United States each year.

John Wahala a researcher with the Center for Immigration Studies, says offering legal status to undocumented immigrants sets a bad precedent. "Although they may be hard working, and although they may be contributing to the economy, they have broken U.S. law by coming here without the consent of the U.S. government," he says.

Mr. Wahala says the Center for Immigration Studies believes the government should create new policies to help the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) do a better job. "The INS might be one of the worst agencies for inefficiency," he says, "and legalizing a lot of illegal immigrants would put even more burden on the INS, and would further damage its ability to administer the law."

Michele Waslin, a senior immigration policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, says focusing only on the INS does not take into account the demand for illegal workers. "Just simply reorganizing the INS does nothing to solve this disconnect between labor needs and immigration laws," he says, "and we need a reform of the entire immigration system, so that our economic needs and our immigration policies are in tune with one another."

Roberto Suro from the Pew Hispanic Center says he believes, in the next 9-10 months, Congress will begin debating the issue in depth.