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Bush Administration Urges Congress to Act on Immigration Reform

The Bush administration is stepping up its campaign to get the Democratic-led Congress to approve its immigration reform plan, which failed to get approval from the Republican-dominated Congress last year. Two top officials made appeals to a Senate panel Wednesday, as VOA's Deborah Tate reports from Capitol Hill.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to make the Bush administration's case for immigration reform.

The centerpiece of the administration's plan is guest worker program, which could give most of the nation's estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants a path to U.S. citizenship.

Many congressional Republicans are opposed to a guest worker program, arguing it represents amnesty. It is a key reason why the Republican majority in the last Congress did not support the president's plan.

Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who supports the plan, called on Chertoff and Gutierrez to do more to convince members of their party that it is not amnesty.

"I would appreciate it if both of you would think through this amnesty issue and find the best arguments we have for what else can be done to eliminate this argument, because it is an impediment in dealing with the 11 million undocumented emigrants," said Mr. Specter.

In arguing why the plan is not amnesty, Chertoff and Gutierrez underscored that guest workers would have to meet a series of conditions before getting on a path to citizenship, including paying fines and learning English.

Most Democrats, who are now in the majority in Congress, back the idea of a guest worker program, giving hope to the Bush administration that prospects for immigration reform have improved.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, is chairman of the Judiciary Committee:

"Reform is overdue," he said. "We must be realistic about the millions of undocumented people in this country. We need to bring people out of the shadows."

Commerce Secretary Gutierrez said the guest worker program is essential to keep the U.S. economy growing:

"We recognize that immigration has been a crucial part of our economic growth," he noted. "Immigrants make up 15 percent of our labor force, and account for about half of labor force growth since 1996. Even so, the reality is that there are thousands of jobs that are not getting filled by Americans."

Homeland Security Secretary Chertoff argued that a guest worker program, along with border security and employer enforcement, is in the national security interest.

"Having a regulated channel for this kind of labor force is actually going to help our border enforcement, because it is going to reduce the pressure on the border that is caused by the huge economic demand that is drawing the tens of thousands of migrants to cross the desert or cross the Rio Grande River to work in the United States," he said. "Bringing these people into a regulated, visible system will help our ability to promote national security."

Still, many Republicans favor a staggered approach to immigration reform, saying they want to be assured that borders are secure before a guest worker program is established.

"We have to re-establish confidence [in border security] before we address the issue of the 11 million people that are here," said Senator Tom Coburn an Oklahoma Republican.

Secretary Chertoff sought to address such concerns, saying there has been a dramatic drop in the number of illegal border crossings since President Bush ordered thousands of National Guard troops to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico back in May.

"In the three-quarters of the year since we put into effect Operation Jump Start, we have seen in each quarter a significant decline in the number of people we are seeing crossing the border," he added.

Chertoff also highlighted success in cracking down on employers who have hired illegal workers.