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Illegal Immigration in a Nation of Immigrants

The United States, a nation of immigrants, is currently engaged in a heated debate about illegal immigration. According to government estimates, there are eight to ten million illegal immigrants in the United States and another half million cross the border each year. The immigration debate involves a range of proposals, from amnesty to deportation.

More than 500,000 people protested in Los Angeles on Saturday, demanding that Congress abandon measures passed in the House of Representatives that would add 1100 kilometers of fence along America's 3200-kilometer border with Mexico, and declare illegal immigrants and organizations that help them -- to be felons. Demonstrations were held in other U.S. cities, including Dallas, Phoenix, Milwaukee, and Columbus, Ohio.

Among the protesters was Mariana, an illegal immigrant who arrived from Mexico City 15 years ago. "I've been here most of my life. My kids were born here," she said.

Mariana would be a criminal, if the House bill becomes law.

President Bush's proposal is less punitive. He wants to secure the border, shut down document counterfeiting rings, and stop smugglers who traffic in human beings. He is also seeking to create a guest worker program that would provide temporary employment without a guarantee of permanent residence or citizenship.

"This program would provide a legal way to match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill the jobs that Americans are unwilling to do,” said Mr. Bush. “Workers should be able to register for legal status on a temporary basis."

But, Dale McGlothlin, an immigration reform activist, says the President's plan would drive down wages for all Americans. "It doesn't matter how hard you work or how much you want to work. Unless you work for less money, you are not going to have a job in the future," said the chief operating officer of the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

The president's own Republican Party is split on immigration between business interests who want a supply of cheap workers and those who say illegal immigrants strain the American economy, schools, health care, and culture. And Colorado Representative Tom Tancredo, a Republican, says illegal immigrants violate the rule of law.

"The crime they have committed is coming into this country without our permission. The penalty that is supposed to be applied to that, under the law that we have today is deportation."

But Mariana says deportation would destroy her family. "The most important thing is to keep our families together."

Immigration reform advocates protested on Monday at the U.S. Capitol, where the Senate is exploring more lenient alternatives, including amnesty, for resident illegals. President Bush, however, is opposed to amnesty, saying it would encourage more illegal immigration.

The Senate has scheduled two weeks for the immigration debate.