Congress and the Bush administration have begun exploring two sensitive immigration issues that could have long-range implications for Mexico and the United States.
The first involves illegal immigration. Mexican President Vicente Fox would like to see a new American program that would offer legal status and eventual citizenship to millions of undocumented migrants who are here from Mexico.
It is currently estimated that between 5 million and 7 million illegal immigrants are in the US. About half of them are Mexican.
The second controversial proposal would launch an expanded "guest-worker" program. It would eventually permit hundreds of thousands of Mexicans to enter the US each year to work on a temporary basis. Many would do seasonal work.
One guest-worker concept supported by Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas has drawn fire from the 14-member Congressional Hispanic Caucus. They insist that any such plan would be unacceptable unless it eventually led to permanent residency for guest workers. Senator Gramm opposes that.
A new nationwide poll conducted by the Monitor finds Americans are often indecisive about immigration issues. The Christian Science Monitor/TIPP survey shows that:
* By a margin of 44 percent to 26 percent, Americans say they would oppose granting amnesty to illegal residents of the US. But nearly 30 percent said they didn't know enough about the issue to decide.
* By a narrow 39 percent to 38 percent, Americans say they would oppose creating a guest-worker program with Mexico. Another 23 percent were undecided.
The US currently admits more immigrants than any other nation. While exact numbers are unknown, it is estimated that well over 1 million people move to the US every year. Hundreds of thousands of them arrive clandestinely, or go underground after entering as tourists.
When asked about the pace of immigration, 41 percent of those surveyed said they would favor reducing current levels. Some said they would eliminate immigration entirely. But 33 percent said immigration should remain at current levels, and approximately 8 percent wanted to see the numbers increased.
There is little uncertainty, however, among Americans about an idea floated recently by Mexican officials in favor of a much more open US-Mexico border. The open-border concept, modeled after the European Union, would permit Mexicans and Americans greater freedom to live and work in either of the two countries.
Such a proposal was opposed by 65 percent of those queried, while just 16 percent said they would be in favor.
President Bush, who has emphasized good relations with Mexico, could find himself squeezed on these issues. With Mexico plumping for higher levels of migration to the US, and many US companies urging a freer access to low-wage Mexican workers, the president will be pressured to reduce barriers. There will also be strong pleas for amnesty.
At the same time, the American public, after a decade of heavy immigration from Latin America and Asia, may call for a pause. The Monitor/TIPP survey found little support for boosting immigration levels, as Mexico would prefer.
Rising immigration has been a major factor driving up the rate of growth of the US population in the past decade. The Census Bureau reports that the US added 32.7 million people in the past 10 years. New immigrants and their children accounted for as many as 20 million of that increase.
Some of those questioned in the Monitor/TIPP poll were clearly reacting to these trends.
William Smith, who lives in Youngstown, Ohio, warns that the president and Congress "must be careful with immigration." He's opposed to granting amnesty to illegal immigrants, as well as to a guest-worker program. "Pretty soon all we're going to have are low-paying jobs and these jobs must go to Americans first," he says. "We have to take care of ourselves."
Glover Ledford, a retired General Motors employee in Livingston, Tenn., also opposes amnesty and the guest-worker idea. "We've got too many people," he says bluntly. He would "build a high fence all around America."
However, Barbara Edens, who works for a car rental company in Hanford, Calif., takes a more sympathetic view. "Immigration levels should remain about the same," she says.
A spokesman for US Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R) of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, says the congressman is opposed to amnesty for illegal residents. He feels that an amnesty program would be unfair to other immigrants who "play by the rules," the spokesman says.
Immigration laws must go through Mr. Sensenbrenner's committee.
Ironically, Mexico has serious illegal immigration problems of its own on its southern border with Guatemala. The Dallas Morning News reported that Mexico deported 160,000 undocumented migrants in 2000, and this year arrests have climbed 25 percent higher.
Staff writer Steven Savides contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor