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America Divided on Illegal Immigration

In recent months, Congress has seen a flurry of proposals to overhaul U.S. immigration policy and combat illegal immigration. While most bills recognize the need to strengthen enforcement of the 3,000 kilometer U.S. border with Mexico, there is no consensus on what should become of the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented foreigners already living in the country.

Speaking in Washington recently, Colorado Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo said the American people are profoundly exasperated with illegal immigration.

"The message is not mixed," said Tom Tancredo. "The message from America is: stop illegal immigration."

Indeed, a recent public opinion survey shows 60 percent of Americans favor constructing a wall spanning the entire U.S.-Mexico border, while 49 percent want to rescind automatic U.S. citizenship for the children of illegal immigrants who are born in the United States. A growing concern is the economic impact of illegal immigration, according to Phil Kent, spokesman for the independent group "Americans for Immigration Control".

"These [undocumented workers] are wage thieves," said Phil Kent. "In fact, if you could wave a magic wand and all illegal immigrants were to disappear tomorrow, every poor person in America would get a raise in their wages."

But on this point the polling data are less clear. Another survey shows 53 percent of Americans believe immigrants take jobs that native-born citizens do not want.

Recognizing the need to stem the tide of illegal immigration while also acknowledging U.S. labor needs, President Bush has proposed a guest worker program that would give undocumented laborers a legal means of remaining in the country. But Mr. Bush has stressed that this program in no way constitutes an amnesty for those who entered the United States illegally, and is not a stepping stone to U.S. citizenship.

"I oppose amnesty," said President Bush. "Rewarding law-breakers would encourage others to break the law and keep pressure on our border. A temporary worker program will relieve pressure on the border, and help us more effectively enforce our immigration laws."

But Congressman Tancredo scoffs at any guest worker proposal.

"Nobody believes for a moment that if you come here as a guest worker and stay six years, that you will go home, especially when you can bring family [with you to the United States]," he said. "When you bring family, nobody goes home."

Tancredo is a strong proponent of an immigration reform bill that passed the House of Representatives in December. The "Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act" would massively expand U.S. border enforcement, compel employers to verify workers' citizenship, and make it a federal crime to provide assistance to undocumented aliens.

Illegal immigrants, immigration advocates and a variety of social service providers have protested the bill as heavy-handed and unfair. Reverend David Rocha ministers at a Washington-area United Methodist Church with a large Hispanic congregation.

Rocha says, "The bill [H.R. 4437] is unjust. And if it is established as law, we will disobey it. We will continue to actively serve those who are less fortunate."

Some see today's immigration debate in the United States as driven by fear. The founder of the U.S.-Mexico Center at the University of Texas, Juan Hernandez, has written a book: The New American Pioneers - Why are We Afraid of Mexican Immigrants? Hernandez, a former adviser to Mexican President Vicente Fox, says Americans are understandably concerned about border security in an era of global terrorism, and that cultural factors also play a role in the immigration debate.

"No one predicted there would be 42 million Hispanics in this nation," said Juan Hernandez. "No one predicted that. So, these are dramatic changes in our nation, and that does scare people."

But Hernandez warns against adopting a fortress mentality to keep newcomers out.

"We cannot become a closed nation," he said. "This nation is known for its openness. I remember the words of [former President Ronald] Reagan: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" That is America. That is the voice of this nation - not a nation that builds walls."

At present, immigration bills generated in the U.S. Senate more closely mirror President Bush's vision of a guest worker program than the House legislation stressing tougher border enforcement. Whether the two chambers will be able to reconcile their differences remains to be seen, but political observers say illegal immigration is likely remain a hot-contested topic in many congressional races this year.