According to census estimates, more than a quarter of the foreign-born population living in the United States has no legal papers, no visa or green card, and no way to get a legal driver's license or to pay federal income taxes. In an age of increased security against terror from abroad, Democrats and Republicans promote very different approaches to solving the country's immigration issues.
Several recent polls suggest that a majority of Americans are in favor of stricter immigration laws. But much of the proposed legislation on the issue has stalled, and some politicians say this election season is the time for real change to occur.
Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo of Colorado says the United States needs tighter borders to prevent the spread of terrorism, and he is against providing legal status to people who arrive in the United States without permission.
"No one should be rewarded for having violated the law. No one,? he said. ?Not the people coming into this country and certainly not the employers who in fact are abetting this. I think we have only two choices in this country frankly. Only two. Either we have borders or we don't."
How to secure the United States, and still protect its status as a nation of immigrants, are questions that polarize many Americans. Even the words politicians use to describe the people in question are different. Democrats call them "undocumented immigrants." Republicans call them "illegal aliens."
Either way, about 9.3 million people, many with families here and abroad, live in a constant state of uncertainty about whether, or when, they may be deported. Democrats tend to support immigrants' rights, and believe that those who are undocumented and have no criminal record should be granted the right to obtain legal residency after a certain period of time.
Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner of New York says these "amnesty" programs benefit the undocumented and the community at large.
"It's about a much larger question. It's about society,? he said. ?What is the way that we as a society decide whether or not our constituents are being well served? We certainly aren't well served by having someone who can't get a driver's license, therefore they can't get an insurance policy, therefore when they rear end my car I end up dealing with an uninsured person, which is not in anyone's advantage."
Frank Sharry, who heads the National Immigration Forum* and moderated the debate, says the discussion is missing a key factor.
"When immigrant communities get more mobilized and more active and have their voice heard at the table, that is ultimately what this debate is waiting for,? he said. ?There are good ideas on the table. There is a ferocious debate. It is an engaged, democratic debate. It's healthy. But what is missing really is immigrants participating in a way in which it defines the shape and passage of real reforms."
Mr. Sharry says that no matter who wins the presidential race in November, a bipartisan solution to America's immigration problems could be years away.
* - corrected 02 September 2004. The New York Immigration Coalition hosted the debate.