As the U.S. Congress moves beyond the issue of health care, some lawmakers are pushing for an overhaul of the nation's immigration system. At the heart of the debate is a proposal to give legal status to millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States. The issue engenders strong feelings from both sides and recently tens of thousands of supporters of reform marched in Washington.
Walter Castro who marched in Washington recently came to the United States from El Salvador when he was seven years old. He joined many lending support to President Obama who supports immigration reform. Castro says there should be a legal path to citizenship for the estimated 11 to 12 million illegal immigrants living in the U.S.
"What I do want to see happen is that they get legalized, even if they have to pay back taxes and that they also have to pay penalty fees," said Castro.
Passage of immigration legislation remains in doubt because of strong opposition by mostly Republican lawmakers.
"We do not need to be importing a massive poverty stricken, poorly educated welfare class," said Dan Stein, President of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He strongly opposes any measure that grants amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"Nobody should be talking about an amnesty program for two reasons. One, it encourages more people to come illegally. Two, it discourages people who might have gone back to their homeland from doing so," added Stein.
While Yessenia Saucedo is a citizen, her mother is not and could face deportation to her native Mexico. Yessenia wants lawmakers to fulfill years of promises to change the law.
"The only opportunity is now," said Saucedo. "We can't wait until later because families are going to get separated, people are going to get deported and that's not fair."
Recent studies indicate the flow of illegal immigrants coming from Mexico to the U.S. has slowed slightly. Analyst say it's due in part to the economic downturn, tougher border enforcement and an increase in workplace raids by police looking for illegal immigrants. But Immigration reform advocates maintain a legal path to citizenship for undocumented workers will help boost the U.S. economy. Eliseo Medina, is vice president of Service Employees International Union, the largest U.S. labor union of immigrant workers.
"It is estimated that if we legalize the estimated 11 or 12 million [illegal immigrants] that they will lead to a growth in our [US] economy of $1.5 trillion and that is something that is good for everybody," noted Medina.
Janet Kephart with the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington disagrees. She says granting amnesty for millions of illegal immigrants will make it harder for Americans to find jobs.
"If you granted amnesty to 11 million undocumented workers you are flooding the market with the potential of those folks competing for jobs with Americans. Folks who have broken the law, worked here illegally, probably a lot of them, and now seek to compete equally with Americans for jobs," said Kephart.
Three years ago efforts to overhaul immigration failed, despite massive protest rallies across the country by immigrant-rights groups. But last month, two senators, presented a plan that calls for illegal immigrants to pay back taxes and perform community service in order to gain legal status. It also calls for admitting temporary workers into the country in line with the demands of the economy. Democratic Congressman Charles Gonzalez from Texas says he's optimistic a reform bill can pass this year.
"I don't want to get people's hopes up and they get so profoundly disappointed it is going to be tough, but nothing is impossible," said Gonzalez.
Political analysts say they doubt an immigration reform bill will be passed this year with congressional elections in November. But these immigration reform activists say they will not be deterred and will continue to rally to pressure the White House and Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration system.