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Punish Illegal Immigrants? Welcome Them as Future Citizens? Congress Debates Immigration

I'm Steve Ember with IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English.

Immigration was a major subject as President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox met this week. They were in Cancun, Mexico, joined by the new prime minister of Canada, Stephen Harper. The North American leaders also discussed trade and other issues during their two days of meetings.

The two presidents both support the idea of a guest worker program that would not punish illegal immigrants now in the United States. But Mister Bush's Republican Party is divided on issues of immigration reform.

The Pew Hispanic Center says fifty-six percent of illegal immigrants in the United States are from Mexico. It estimates that the United States has eleven million to twelve million illegal immigrants. Some other estimates put the number higher.

In Washington, a vote this week cleared the way for the full Senate to debate an immigration bill. The Judiciary Committee approved legislation that would make it possible for some illegal immigrants to become American citizens.

They would have to prove they have jobs and are not wanted for crimes. They would also have to learn English and pay any tax debts.

The proposal would also expand guest worker programs to let four hundred thousand people into the country each year. After six years they could ask for permission to stay permanently.

The Senate bill conflicts with legislation approved by the House of Representatives in December. Under the House version, illegal immigrants and anyone who helps them could face criminal charges.

In the past week, many thousands of Latinos and others marched in Los Angeles and other cities to protest that legislation. Students walked out of high school classes to join the protests.

Anger at the House bill could hurt efforts to get more Latinos to vote Republican in congressional elections this November. The party controls both houses of Congress.

Some lawmakers want to discuss only border enforcement and security. They oppose legislation that would permit illegal immigrants to become citizens. They say it is not fair to immigrants who obeyed the law.

Others support changing the immigration laws as a way to improve the lives of those living in the country illegally now. Supporters say the economy depends on them. They say these workers do jobs that Americans refuse to do.

Opponents might not dispute that. But they say there is currently not enough enforcement of laws against employing illegal immigrants in jobs that Americans will do. The building trades are often used as an example.

Last Monday, President Bush spoke at a ceremony for new citizens. He expressed support for guest worker programs for economic reasons. But he also said he will not support any plan that pardons all of those who have been working in the United States illegally.

IN THE NEWS in VOA Special English was written by Nancy Steinbach. I'm Steve Ember.