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Immigration Q&A

March 31, 2006|Maura Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

Why has immigration overhaul become a top issue now?

The main reason is that President Bush has decided to make it a signature issue of his presidency. The former governor of Texas, a border state, Bush became convinced of the need to create a guest-worker program to meet employers' labor demands and address the needs of millions of immigrants already living in the United States.

Also, Bush sees addressing immigration as a way to attract more Latinos and other immigrants to the Republican Party.

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How many illegal immigrants are in the United States?

Between 11 million and 12 million, according to the nonpartisan Pew Hispanic Center. Many families have a mixture of legal and illegal members. One out of 20 workers in the U.S. is undocumented.

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What ever happened to the changes to immigration law of 1986 and 1996?

The 1986 overhaul of immigration law offered amnesty to illegal immigrants who had been in the country for the previous five years, and it increased sanctions on employers that knowingly employed workers who entered the country illegally. However, the number of illegal immigrants continued to grow. Eventually, enforcement of employer sanctions slackened.

The 1996 changes focused on enhancing border security, streamlining deportation procedures and decreasing social benefits to immigrants who entered illegally. Experts say the primary effect was to encourage illegal immigrants to stay in the United States once they arrived, instead of moving back and forth across the border. And the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. continued to grow.

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What is the Republican position on immigration?

Republicans are deeply divided on immigration overhaul. Many Republicans see immigration as a law-and-order issue and believe immigration controls should focus on border security. They oppose any measure they believe provides amnesty for illegal immigrants, including measures that would allow undocumented workers to apply for citizenship.

Other Republicans, sometimes influenced by business lobbies, favor addressing the imbalance between the supply and demand for low-skill labor through a guest-worker program. Some of these Republicans believe that guest workers who meet certain criteria should be offered a path to citizenship, which they say would give them a firmer stake in the country and prevent the development of an underclass of workers.

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What is the Democratic position on immigration?

Most Democrats favor changes to immigration policy that include a guest-worker program as well as enhanced border enforcement.

However, a few Democrats are skeptical of the contention that immigrants take only the jobs most Americans won't accept. These lawmakers fear that an influx of low-wage workers would lower the wage base for all workers and encourage employers to cut benefits and worker protections.

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What has the House of Representatives proposed?

A bill passed in December by the House focuses on increasing border security. It would also make it a felony to offer assistance, including humanitarian assistance, to illegal immigrants. It does not make changes to the visa system or address the status of illegal immigrants already in the United States.

Immigrant-advocacy groups as well as some business groups oppose the House bill and support a competing proposal under consideration in the Senate. Passage of the House bill has sparked protests in California and elsewhere across the country.

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How does Senate legislation differ from the House bill?

The main Senate proposal combines enhanced border enforcement with a guest-worker program and a legalization process for workers in the United States who entered illegally.

Guest workers and illegal immigrants already here would eventually be able to apply for citizenship.

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How would a guest-worker program work?

Under a proposal by Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee, foreign workers would be able to apply for a three-year visa, which would be renewable for a second three-year period. The guest workers would also be able to get visas for family members.

After four years, they would be allowed to apply for legal permanent resident status (commonly known as a green card) if they passed a background check, learned English and American civics, and demonstrated their work history. Five years after that -- nine years after they first arrived in the U.S. -- they would be able to apply for citizenship.

The number of guest-worker visas would be capped at 400,000, although that limit could be adjusted based on market forces.

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How would illegal immigrants apply for citizenship?

Under the McCain-Kennedy proposal, workers in the United States illegally would be able to apply for six-year visas. After that time, they could apply for a green card if they paid a $2,000 fine, passed a background check, learned English and American civics, made good on back taxes and demonstrated their work history.

Five years later -- 11 years after they first applied for a temporary visa -- they could apply for citizenship. In addition, their application for citizenship would be processed after those of guest workers and others who did not enter the country illegally.

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Which approach will prevail?

It is too soon to tell. Debate on the Senate proposal is expected to last through next week, and amendments might be added that change certain provisions.

If the Senate is able to pass a bill, negotiators from the two chambers would have to meet to agree on a compromise between the House and Senate versions. Some House members have vowed to oppose any provisions authorizing guest workers or offering citizenship to workers who entered the country illegally.

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