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US Immigration Reform Sparks Sharp Debate

The United States is a beacon to immigrants, a nation where more than 66 million legal immigrants have settled since the mid-19th century, and where perhaps as many as 20 million illegal immigrants are living. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services estimates that more than half a million illegal immigrants enter the U.S. each year, a fact that has led many to conclude that America's immigration policy is not working.

President George W. Bush raised the immigration issue in his State of the Union speech on Wednesday, when he said the American immigration system is no longer suited to America's economic needs or values. He proposes allowing people to come to the United States to work, for a while, without granting them the right to stay.

"We should not be content with laws that punish hardworking people who want only to provide for their families, and deny businesses willing workers, and invite chaos at our border. It is time for an immigration policy that permits temporary guest workers to fill jobs Americans will not take, that rejects amnesty, that tells us who is entering and leaving our country, and that closes the border to drug dealers and terrorists," said the president.

Michele Waslin is an immigration policy analyst with the National Council of La Raza, (NCLR) the largest constituency-based voice for the Hispanic population in the United States. She applauds the president for supporting immigration reform, but says the problem goes beyond giving illegal immigrant workers temporary legal status.

"We think the reasons for undocumented immigration are very complex, and we really need to get to those root causes about why people are coming here, undocumented in the first place. Michele Waslin says, the first reason is that there are no legal channels for the majority of these workers to come here lawfully. So we do need to create some kind of new visa, some kind of new legal means for needed and wanted immigrants to come to the country, however, unlike the president, we don't believe that a temporary worker program or a guest worker program is the sole solution."

Another aspect of immigration reform is whether undocumented or illegal immigrants should be allowed to have driver's licenses. The United States does not have a national identity card. A driver’s license can be used to verify someone's identity. Eleven states currently issue drivers licenses without requiring a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship. But a bill introduced last week in Congress would restrict the ability of illegal immigrants to obtain drivers licenses by requiring national identification standards.

The drivers license issue was raised during the investigation into the events that led up to the September 11th terrorist attacks. Many of the 19 terrorists used state-issued drivers licenses as identification to board flights.

Jack Martin is with the Federation for American Immigration Reform. He says illegal immigrants should never be given driver’s licenses. "It makes no sense to put what is in effect our default national ID in the hands of people who don't legally belong in the country, both in terms of encouraging illegal immigration and also for the security reason, which is that, if you don't really know who the person is because of the fact that they have an assumed identity with false documents, you may be documenting additional terrorists," said Mr. Martin.

Groups such as NCLR oppose the legislation, arguing that a driver’s license should not be tied to immigration status. Supporters from both sides of the issue are currently lobbying California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was elected because he did not support issuing driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. The issue is a top priority this year for state legislators across the country. A reform of overall immigration policy would be up to Congress.