President Bush met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Vicente Fox in Cancun this week in hopes of strengthening relationships with the United States' top two trading partners. But immigration policy overshadowed the meetings. The president stressed the importance of protecting U.S. borders and reiterated his support for a "guest worker" program. For the most part, his statements were well received by the leaders, but that may not be the case at home. Recent polls suggest about 60 percent of Americans oppose allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the country, and 3 out of 4 U.S. citizens don't believe the government is doing enough stop the flood of new arrivals. The U.S. Senate responded to those beliefs this week as it tried to determine the legal future of the more than 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
A comprehensive immigration bill that answers President Bush's call for a guest-worker program appears to have enough bipartisan support to pass the Senate, after the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday voted in its favor. The plan would allow workers to stay in this country up to six years. Then, they would have to return home unless accepted for permanent residency and eventual U.S. citizenship.
By midweek the debate moved to the Senate floor, with Majority Leader Bill Frist discussing h his own measure, which includes a tough border-enforcement plan.
Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tennessee: "The situation along our Southern borders now ranks as a national security challenge...second only to the war on terror."
Frist's proposal, the Senate Judiciary Committee measure and the House bill passed in December represent the major immigration reforms being debated. President Bush has insisted that Congress send him a bill that not only strengthens U.S. borders, but also allows foreigners to have a guest permit allowing them to work temporarily in the U.S.
The plan approved by the judiciary committee was from an amendment sponsored by Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy --drawn from a comprehensive bill that he's sponsoring with Arizona Republican John McCain. A broad coalition of immigrant advocacy groups and business organizations embrace the measure. The bill would enable illegal immigrants currently in the U.S. to apply for permanent residency and citizenship after paying fines and fees totaling $2,000 and meeting other conditions. Under the guest-worker plan, foreigners must pay fees up to $500 and show that they have U.S. jobs waiting. They would receive three-year visas, which could be renewed for another three years. After four years, they could apply for green cards.
The bill also would shelter humanitarian organizations from prosecution if they provide non-emergency assistance to illegal residents, and allow more visas for nurses and farm workers. American agriculture was shocked by the surprise December House passage of a border security bill that would stiffen enforcement for the crime of hiring undocumented foreign workers.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R- Pennsylvania: "It's necessary for the American economy to have people come into this country to help us on the farms, in the hotels, restaurants and other jobs."
The most contentious provision of the judiciary committee's bill would permit illegal aliens currently in the country to apply for citizenship without first having to return home, a process that would take six years. They would have to pay a fine, learn English, study American civics, demonstrate they had paid their taxes and take their place behind other applicants for citizenship, according to aides to Senator Kennedy, D-Massachusetts.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D- Massachusetts: "This is an issue that isn't going to go away. It's going to take the best that is in all of us."
The vote this week called for a measure that is dramatically different from the bill the House approved late last year. In December, a 94-member coalition of Republicans blocked inclusion of a guest-worker program in the immigration bill. The House bill makes illegal immigration a felony and calls for 700 miles of fences along the U.S. - Mexico border.
The issue of immigration is a thorny one, being emotionally, economically and politically charged. Republicans long have been divided over the topic, with President Bush and some GOP members of Congress supporting temporary worker programs that other Republicans call amnesty for lawbreakers.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R- Alabama: "We all thought that we agreed we wouldn't have amnesty. The truth is, this bill is amnesty. It's exactly like the 1986 bill and everyone said that was amnesty."
Meanwhile, some Senate Democrats have vowed to block any immigration policy legislation that does not contain both a provision for a guest worker program and a system to allow the more than 11 million illegal immigrants already in this country to earn their way to legal status.
The Senate hopes to vote on a bill by April 7.