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US Lawmakers to Debate Immigration

The debate over a compromise immigration reform plan negotiated by President Bush and senators from both parties is expected to heat up this week, as the Senate takes up the issue Monday. VOA's Stephanie Ho reports from Washington.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez took to the television airwaves Sunday to defend an immigration plan unveiled last week by the White House and a bipartisan group of senators.

The compromise plan would grant special visas to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States who meet stiff legal requirements. It also calls for greater border security and punitive measures for employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

In response to critics who say the program amounts to amnesty or a short-cut to legal status for illegal immigrants, Chertoff told CNN's Late Edition program no one gets to "jump the line," as he put it, in an effort to get a U.S. green card.

"Everybody who has been on line, waiting patiently, gets ahead of them [illegal immigrants]," he said. "They have to pay a penalty, similar to what you pay if you commit a misdemeanor, which is what this is under the existing state of the law."

On the same television show, Gutierrez added that illegal immigrants will be forced to pay a penalty and will undergo a criminal background check.

"So, it is not amnesty," he said. "We have said it is not amnesty. We have the impression, I have the impression, that perhaps for some people, the only thing that would not be amnesty is mass deportation. We do not think that is practical, we do not think that is logical, we do not think that is humane. And that would hurt our economy."

Labor unions fear the deal will drive down wages.

The more than 300-page bill is expected to face especially heated debate in the U.S. House of Representatives. Congressman Brian Bilbray, chairman of the House Immigration Reform Caucus, compares the current proposal to legislation in 1986 that, in his words, rewarded people for immigrating to the United States illegally. He also spoke on CNN Late Edition.

"By announcing this, you are going to have the next big wave," said Bilbray. "We had the largest influx of illegal immigration since the last amnesty. What makes them think that if you do the same thing, you are not going to get the same results?"

On ABC's This Week program, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, expressed concern about specific plan aspects, such as a system that would award points to immigrants based on their skills and length of time in the United States.

But she expressed confidence that a bipartisan solution could be worked out.

"I am not president of United States," she said. "I cannot sign the bill. But we can get it to the president's desk, and we will."

Speaking from the Senate, Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged to ABC that the bill is not perfect. But he said it is an improvement over the status quo, and urged lawmakers to move forward with it.