A new report says the number of immigrants living in the United States is the highest-ever in American history, but millions of those immigrants are in the country illegally.  VOA's Lisa Ferdinando reports on a new study and the continuing debate on illegal immigration in the United States.

These men, day laborers waiting for work in Virginia, are among the more than 35 million immigrants currently living in the United States.  More than nine million of those immigrants are estimated to be in the country illegally.

The figures come from the independent Center for Immigration Studies, which says in the last five years, about eight million new immigrants settled in the United States, making it the largest five-year period of immigration in the country's history. 

It says Mexico accounts for the most immigrants in the United States, 31 percent, followed by East Asia with 18 percent.

The center's director of research, Steven Camarota, says immigrants, legal and illegal, face obstacles not because they are unwilling to work, but because of lack of education.

"We estimate that 35 percent of illegal households use at least one of the major welfare programs.  But here's the point, we also estimate that 48 percent of legal immigrants who lack a high school education use one of the major welfare programs,? he said.  ?Legalization, or being legal in the United States, is no guarantee of success, if you're uneducated."

What to do about legalizing immigrants already in the country, and the strengthening of U.S. borders, are being debated in the United States.

President Bush has proposed establishing a guest worker program that allows illegal aliens to temporarily work in the country.

"We will not be able to effectively enforce our immigration laws until we create a temporary worker program,? said the president recently.  ?The program that I propose would not create an automatic path to citizenship.  It wouldn't provide for amnesty.  I oppose amnesty.  Rewarding those who have broken the law would encourage others to break the law and keep pressure on our border."

Others say the better course would be to accept reality and legalize all immigrants already in the country.  Steven Camarota says that will not fix the problem.

"It's not going to solve the problem of high poverty or high rates of near poverty, welfare use, or lack of health insurance coverage."

The U.S. House of Representatives is preparing to debate a bill that calls for heightened border security and increased penalties for smugglers, as well as those who enter the country illegally.