America eyes two paths for illegal migrants

A Senate vote this week may reveal whether US immigration law will be restrictive or open-armed.

Jorge Santos has dreamed for years of becoming a US citizen - like his wife, son, and stepdaughter. He speaks English well, owns a home, and finished fine furniture for a living - until a deportation a few years ago flagged the fact that he was using a false Social Security number.

He's back in the US now, watching Washington wrangle over immigration - especially what to do about those already here illegally. Under the US House bill, he'd become a felon; a Senate bill offers a path to US citizenship, but Mr. Santos doubts he'd be eligible. His earlier run-in with immigration law may disqualify him.

Though many immigrants prefer the Senate's more open-armed bill, it can't yet answer their most urgent question: Who'd get to stay and who'd be sent home? How senators would resolve Santos's case, and others with similar complications, may be what determines whether most undocumented immigrants living and working in the US step forward to be counted - a major goal of the legislation - or remain in the shadows.

"You want to make it as open as possible," says Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, which supports the bill drafted by the Senate Judiciary Committee. "The point is to bring people out of shadows. You want to have reasonable requirements [for residency], but you can't try to trip them up."

The Senate is slated to vote this week on the part of the bill that spells out how the US would regard the 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. To that end, senators are debating what waivers to include for people like Santos, who have previous immigration violations.

Critics denounce the Senate bill as a virtual amnesty that will reward criminal behavior and threaten Americans' jobs. In its current form, they add, it is far too embracing of those who entered the country illegally - and is unfair to immigrants who followed the law.

"It rewards people who have broken the law, and puts at a disadvantage people who have been playing by rules," say Ira Mehlman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates a crackdown on illegal immigration. He isn't buying the argument that illegals will be at the back of the line to obtain permanent residency, noting that "they'll do their waiting here, and others will be waiting somewhere else."

Mr. Mehlman and other critics cite the 1986 amnesty law, which permitted all undocumented immigrants who had been in the United States since January 1982 to apply for permanent residency, and more than 3 million did so. Many consider the legislation a failure, because illegal immigration increased afterward. "We've been down this road before," says Mehlman.

Supporters of the Judiciary bill emphasize that things are different this time. Not only are the requirements for residency tougher, but the guest-worker program and the increased number of visas give an outlet for future immigration pressures.

"As long as our laws don't allow for that continued flow, our laws will be circumvented," says Deborah Meyers at the Migration Policy Institute. "This is trying to have our policies be a better match with realities on the ground."

A path to permanent residency and citizenship is just one piece of a three-part package whose elements - more resources for enforcement and a guest-worker program - work together, say Ms. Meyers and others. Without a way to identify and register current undocumented workers, they say, and a legal way for future guest workers to fill unmet job needs, border patrol and immigration agents can't succeed.

"Nobody should think that the current status quo - or going with an enforcement-only approach - will ever secure the borders," says Stewart Verdery, former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. "For the first time, this will give the border patrol an honest chance to find the true bad actors."

The issue elicits divided and deeply held reactions from Americans, who seem split over illegal immigration. Poll results vary widely. About 60 percent of Americans oppose allowing illegal immigrants to apply for legal, temporary-worker status, according to an NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll. But a Time magazine poll found that 78 percent say illegal immigrants who learn English, pay taxes, and have a job should have a shot at legal status.

Immigrants and their supporters, meanwhile, have taken to the streets in waves, trying to rally opposition to the tough House bill. Many also cheered the Senate Judiciary bill.

Santos, who has lived mostly in the US since he was 16, says he feels like an American. When he returned to Mexico to visit his ailing mother four years ago, he was caught reentering the US and was deported. He knew he was breaking the law when he sneaked in a few months later, he says, but felt he had no choice. "When you love your son, you just want to be with him," he says.

Like many illegal immigrants, Santos has always paid taxes and would gladly pay a fine if it meant he could stay here.

The Judiciary bill is not an automatic path to citizenship, say immigrant-rights advocates. In fact, some worry that the English-language requirement, in particular, will be an obstacle, because ESL (English as a Second Language) courses already are too few to meet demand.

They're already here. Now what?

The House and Senate propose different ways of resolving the status of as many as 12 million immigrants already in the US illegally. Both would change existing law.

House bill (approved in December)

• Makes illegal presence in the US a felony. Anyone convicted of being in the US illegally would never be allowed to reenter.

• Does not include a "guest worker" program for undocumented immigrants already in the US.

Senate Judiciary bill (vote pending)

• Allows illegal immigrants in the US as of January 2004 to apply for a six-year visa, without returning first to their countries of origin. The visa allows them to bring family. After six years, a visa holder may apply for permanent residency (and a green card) by:

- Demonstrating employment.

- Paying all back taxes and $2,000 in fines.

- Passing criminal background checks.

- Learning English.

- Waiting at the back of the line to receive a green card. Five years after obtaining a green card, he or she may apply for citizenship.

• Establishes a temporary worker program for 1.5 million agricultural jobs.

Current law

• Anyone in the United States illegally for more than 180 days cannot reenter the country for three years. A person in the US illegally for more than one year may not return for 10 years.

• Illegal presence in the US is a civil, not a criminal, offense. If apprehended, undocumented immigrants can demand a hearing to appeal deportation.

- From wire service reports

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