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U.S. Immigration Reform: What's Next?

The Democratic Party's control of Congress next year may result in conflicts with President Bush over many issues, but there is one area where they may reach quick agreement -- comprehensive immigration reform. That means a reform package that would include a system to legalize undocumented workers already in the United States as well as a guest-worker program that would allow people to enter the country for a limited period of time to work and then return home. But opponents of such plans are insisting on border security first and some members of the Democratic Party may agree.

In his news conference the day after the Democratic victories in the November 7 midterm elections, President Bush said he believes Democrats in the new Congress might help him achieve immigration reform.

Members of the president's own party have blocked his proposal for a guest worker program, demanding that there first be better enforcement of immigration laws and better security on the U.S. border with Mexico.

But President Bush says recent efforts to secure the border have paid off and that now is the time to advance on his reform idea. "There is progress being made on the border, in terms of security, and I would hope we can get something done. It is a vital issue and it is an issue where I believe we can find some common ground with the Democrats," said President Bush.

Border Enforcement

But that view is not shared by groups favoring better enforcement on the border. Among those questioning the president's description of progress on the border is Chris Simcox, co-founder of the Minuteman organization, which places private citizen volunteers on the borders to assist the Border Patrol. He spoke to VOA by telephone from Arizona.

"Border Patrol, at the most, is reporting an eight percent decrease across the entire southern border of apprehensions. Everything they have done has been very ineffective at this point in an overall sense," says Simox.

Hispanic groups and some industries that rely on cheap labor favor a guest worker program and a path toward citizenship for the estimated 12-million undocumented workers already in the United States.

Last year, the Republican-dominated U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that was aimed at substantially increasing border security, with no guest worker program. The Senate, which was also in Republican control, later approved a bipartisan bill that contained a guest worker program, but very little in terms of border security. More recently, both houses passed a bill that would add several hundred kilometers of double-layer fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border. It was signed by President Bush, but funding of the project remains in doubt.

A Guest Worker Program

At his news conference, President Bush insisted that a guest worker program would contribute to border security. "When you are talking comprehensive immigration reform, one part of it is a guest worker program, where people can come, on a temporary basis, to do jobs that Americans are not doing. I have always felt that that would be an important aspect of securing the border. In other words, if somebody is not trying to sneak in, in the first place, it decreases the workload on our Border Patrol and lets the Border Patrol focus on drugs and guns and terrorists," said President Bush.

But Chris Simcox says such a program would amount to an amnesty and encourage many more people to cross the border illegally.

"I think what you are going to see is an all-out flood across the border again. You are going to see a free-for-all come the new year, people coming in and bringing their entire family knowing that the president and the Democrats are going to reward them for their illegal behavior," says Simcox.

Controversy Over Amnesty

But Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that also opposes a guest worker program, says President Bush may not find much support among these newly elected Democrats.

"You have to remember that many of the people who were elected this past week were elected on a platform of enforcement of immigration laws. I am not aware of any of the newly elected Democrats who campaigned on a platform of amnesty and more guest workers," says Mehleman.

One newly elected Democrat who will not help President Bush on this issue is Brad Ellsworth, a sheriff in Indiana's eighth congressional district, who defeated the Republican who chaired the House Immigration Subcommittee -- John Hostettler. In his campaign ads, Ellsworth took a strong stand against illegal immigration. "I am against amnesty for illegal immigrants. It is wrong and I have always opposed it. My career has been about protecting people and I will not stop when I get to Congress," says Ellsworth.

Ira Mehlman says many of the newly elected Democrats, like Ellsworth, fear that any legalization program would be quickly undermined by the use of false documents unless there is a much stronger effort to enforce current laws. "There is absolutely no way that the government has the resources to do the kind of investigations to weed out the fraudulent applications from the legitimate ones, at least not in the lifetime of the people who are applying. It is likely to lead to massive, massive fraud," says Mehleman.

Much will depend on what kind of proposals emerge in the new Congress. Reaching a compromise that satisfies lawmakers who want better law enforcement and those who want a guest worker program may provide President Bush with one of his only opportunities to achieve a victory with a Congress controlled by Democrats.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program,VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.