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US Divided Over Immigration Reform

An estimated 11 million illegal immigrants, mostly from Latin America, now live in the United States. Hundreds of thousands more cross the US-Mexican border illegally each month -- according to U.S. immigration officials.

The U.S. Congress is considering legislation to address the problem. Lawmakers agree on measures to tighten border security, but are divided over what to do about the millions of illegal immigrants already on U.S. soil.

The Senate is considering legislation that would allow them to apply for a temporary, government, work permit, which would end their undocumented status, and -- after six years -- lead to permanent, legal residency.

The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed a measure that would make illegal immigration a felony and deny citizenship to the millions already here.

Flavia Jimenez, an immigration policy analyst with the National Council of La Rasa, the largest Latino civil rights organization in the United States, says she's worried the House measure will prevail. "We have seen that there have been for many, many years, millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States, who are working hard and contributing to this economy, who have been living in the shadows," she says. "We're extremely concerned with passage of the House bill."

Earlier this month, at least one million people -- many of them illegal immigrants -- marched in major cities across America, peacefully protesting against the House measure. More rallies are expected on May 1st during observances of May Day, or International Workers Day. But Jimenez says many of the marchers could face arrest and possible deportation for immigration violations if they take part in the demonstrations.

"There are many people [illegal immigrants], who say, 'I could be sacrificing my stay here in the United States, but if this law passes, I will be found in a situation that will be almost unlivable, too,'" Jimenez says. "Many choose to participate and act so they can have their voices heard."

Regarding legislation, Jimenez says her group favors proposals written into the Senate version, "such as those that would give an 'earned legalization' [temporary worker status before earning citizenship] to those who are undocumented."

She explains that immigrants would have to do a number of things to qualify. "They would have to take English classes, civics classes, pay taxes, go through a background check, and only then could they actually apply for their visa, work for a number of years, stay out of trouble, and then be able to earn their legal status."

But that plan is almost identical to an immigration reform law enacted by Congress in 1986, which granted amnesty to about three million illegal aliens. Jack Martin is a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a group that advocates a crackdown against illegal immigration. Martin says the legislation 20 years ago didn't work then and -- as he sees it -- won't now.

"It simply did not work -- because of the fact that the adoption of the amnesty sent a contrary signal abroad that we were not serious about enforcing our immigration laws," Martin says. "We think that if we do that with an amnesty again as part of a package, that, once again, we will be sending the wrong message. We need to send a very clear message that the American people will no longer tolerate illegal immigration, that people coming into the country illegally will not be able to find work, and will find themselves in a situation that they can't support themselves here, and will have to go back home."

Public opinion surveys indicate Americans are divided on the issue of illegal immigration. A recent Washington Post newspaper poll found that 63 percent favor a law that would eventually grant legal status to illegal immigrants. But another survey -- by the Pew Hispanic Center -- shows that 53 percent of Americans want illegal immigrants to go home.

What is clear is that more and more illegal immigrants in the United States appear willing to risk exposure in street rallies to stand up and speak out for their rights. "There is a certain brazenness, but it is one that has been growing as the perception has sunk in among the illegal resident population that the immigration authorities are giving virtually no attention to apprehending individuals illegally in the country," says Jack Martin of FAIR.

President Bush himself has said he does not want a mass deportation of illegal immigrants, and prefers a guest worker program like the one under consideration in the Senate. Final action on the Senate bill is expected by the end of May.

Jack Martin of FAIR believes the Congress will approve legislation more in line with the House version because -- he says -- that's what a majority of voters want. But advocates for a guest worker program argue that Congress is politically savvy enough to see that, in a few years, today's demonstrators and their families -- and millions more -- could very well make up a powerful bloc of new voters.