President, Congress Turn to Immigration Reform

President Bush delivered a major speech last week outlining his plan for immigration reform, bringing into focus, once again, Americans’ troubled relationship with undocumented workers, the Hudson County Journal News reports. The House and Senate are considering four other separate proposals.

Estimates of the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. today range from 8.7 million (U.S. Census Bureau) to 20 million (Bear Stearns, the investment company), according to Reuters. The Pew Hispanic Center sets the number at 11 million based on the 2000 census, a number that is also used by the bipartisan Independent Task Force on Immigration and America’s Future, US Newswire says.

Illegal immigrants are commonly found working in restaurants, hotels and nursing homes, as well as in agriculture. There are so many Latin Americans working on post-Hurricane Katrina construction projects, Reuters reports, that the “city worst affected by the storm is becoming known as La Nueva Orleans.”

The issue arouses strong feelings among Americans, who express widely diverging views. Some groups in the border states propose virtually sealing the U.S. Mexican border with a steel fence and deporting illegal immigrants already in the country, the Reuters report says. A Bear Stearns report on the “underground labor force” suggests that illegal immigrants play a significant role in the economy. “Illegal immigration has been America’s way of competing with the low-wage (labor) forces of Asia and Latin America,” the report says.

The President’s plan provides for increased border security, a point on which all proposals before Congress agree, and a guest worker program that would require all undocumented workers to return home after six years and re-apply for entry. Supporters of the guest worker program say that giving immigrants legal status would help them to obey the law, pay taxes and move about more freely, leaving them less vulnerable to abusive employers and landlords, the Indianapolis Star reports.

Senator Arlen Specter, R-PA, Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, has introduced a bill containing provisions picked from bills already presented by other senators, The Hudson County Journal News says, in an editorial. Spector’s bill contains provisions on border and interior enforcement from a bill supported by Senators John Cornyn of Texas and John Kyl of Arizona, both Republicans; employment verification provisions proposed by Senator Chuck Hagel, R-NE; and a guest-worker program developed by Senators John McCain, R-AZ, and Edward Kennedy, D-MA.

Doris Meissner, director of the bi-partisan Task Force co-chaired by former Senator Spencer Abraham, R-MI, and former Representative Lee Hamilton, D-IN, said, according to US Newswire, that their research suggested a package of reforms was needed, “including workplace enforcement as a key ingredient.” The Task Force recommends a “practical system for new work visas to meet the ongoing labor needs of U.S. employers,” U.S. Newswire reports.

U.S. visa regulations are designed primarily for skilled workers, not the millions of unskilled who make up the illegal immigrant population, Reuters reports. Last year the government issued 1,525 permanent immigration visas to low-skilled applicants. Two visa categories, one for agricultural workers and one for all other occupations, cover unskilled temporary workers. Temporary visas ar capped at 66,000 for 2006.

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