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US Lawmakers Remain Sharply Divided on Immigration Reform


Proponents of stricter U.S. immigration control say a bill passed by the Senate that provides a path to eventual citizenship for illegal aliens would do more harm than good. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington, the criticism comes before legislative negotiators attempt to reconcile the Senate legislation with a House immigration reform bill that focuses on U.S. border security and law enforcement.

Weeks after President Bush called on the Senate to pass comprehensive immigration reform, the upper chamber delivered. Passed by a 62-to-36 vote in late May, the legislation aims to strengthen U.S. border enforcement and crack down on U.S. employers who hire illegal aliens. It would also establish a guest worker program, and provide a path to legal residency and eventual citizenship for millions of illegal aliens who have led productive lives in the United States for a long period of time.

"This is the most far-reaching immigration reform [bill] in our history," he said. "It is a comprehensive and realistic attempt to solve the real world problems that have festered for too long in our broken immigration system. It strengthens our security and reflects our humanity," said Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, a sponsor of the bill.

Yet whether the Senate bill can be reconciled with a House version, and whether America's immigration system is ultimately reformed this year, remains an open question. Many House Republicans have vowed to oppose any bill that would give workers that enter the country without proper documentation a path to citizenship, a measure they view as amnesty and a reward for illegal behavior. On the other side of the debate, immigrant rights groups, many churches and other organizations have strenuously objected to a House bill enacted late last year that would classify illegal aliens as felons and criminalize those who provide assistance to America's undocumented population, estimated at 11 to 12 million people.

Speaking in Washington Thursday, Alabama Republican Senator Jeff Sessions criticized the Senate immigration bill as weak on border enforcement. He pointed out that, when the legislation was being debated, an amendment was proposed to delay the guest worker program until America's borders were secure. "That [amendment] was voted down 55-40. And basically what that said was: the people promoting this legislation were not committed to [border] enforcement," he said.

Sessions added that the temporary guest worker program called for in the Senate legislation would depress wages in the United States, hurting low and middle income Americans. He also contested the notion of guest workers being "temporary," asserting that the bill would allow employers to petition to have their guest workers considered for legal residency. Finally, he questioned whether the Senate bill provides the resources that would be necessary for federal agents to effectively crack down on U.S. businesses that hire illegal aliens.

"I think it [the Senate bill] is a colossal disaster in the making. We need to start over again if we are going to do comprehensive work [on immigration reform]," Sessions said.

Appearing alongside the senator was Steven Camarota of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors restricting U.S.-bound immigration. Camarota said the Senate legislation, if enacted, could more than double America's projected population increase over the next 50 years. He said the sharp population rise would be due to large numbers of foreigners gaining legal status, as well as their projected U.S.-born offspring.

"We are talking about becoming, from a nation today of 300 million, maybe a nation of 500 million people," Camarota said. "And if you are concerned about issues of congestion and sprawl [chaotic development] and pollution and loss of open space [in the United States], then obviously a nation that is 200 million bigger has implications for those kinds of concerns."

Backers of the Senate bill say it tackles America's immigration dilemma in a balanced and realistic way.

President Bush has campaigned vigorously for comprehensive immigration reform similar to the Senate bill, despite opposition from a significant portion of legislators within his Republican Party. Speaking recently near the U.S. border with Mexico, Mr. Bush warned against shutting America's doors to immigrants.

"For generations, immigrants to this country have risked everything because of the dream of freedom," Mr. Bush said. "And they have assimilated into our society, and they have contributed to our economy, and they have contributed to the greatness of America."

Immigration has emerged as a contentious issue ahead of congressional elections in November. Polls show the American public deeply divided on the issue.