They pick and pack our agricultural produce, serve patrons at our hotels and restaurants and resorts, and help build our new houses. Most of them come from the southern border with Mexico. Many of them have been here for years and have children who were born in the U.S.
So serious is the problem of illegal immigration that Governors of some of the states on the U.S.-Mexican border Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, California -- have actually declared states of emergency in an effort to get the attention of Federal officials and lawmakers. Many raise the specter of Al Qaida allies sneaking in to commit acts of terrorism.
The Department of Homeland Security, which governs border control, appears incapable of dealing with the problem. That has led to the formation of citizens vigilante groups patrolling the border to help Border Patrol agents to identify and capture lawbreakers.
Given these facts, the mantra of just about everyone who speaks on this subject has become Americas immigration system is broken and must be fixed. But thats about where the agreement ends. As to what do about the problem, there are almost as many solutions as there are immigrants.
This was to be the year of comprehensive immigration reform legislation. President Bush spent a good deal of his once-hefty political capital to advocate for a guest worker program. But so polarized are the views of state officials, legislators and advocacy groups representing all points on the political spectrum that Congress-watchers are expressing serious doubt that 2006 will see any meaningful progress toward such reform.
What is likely, experts agree, is a battle royal between two critical GOP constituencies: the law-and-order conservatives and business interests that rely on immigrant labor. One camp wants to tighten borders and deport people who are here illegally; the other seeks to bring illegal workers out of the shadows and acknowledge their growing economic importance.
The issue is complicated by the competing -- and sometimes counter-intuitive demands of a wide range of groups and coalitions. Usually conservative business interests, particularly in the fields of agriculture, construction, and hospitality, want to open American borders to avail themselves of cheaper labor.
Groups representing states on the U.S.-Mexican border propose adopting draconian measures including construction of a security fence -- to stem the tide of illegal immigrants. Others are advocating legislation that would tighten U.S. border security but give some legal status to newcomers. Still others are focusing on providing a path to citizenship for the more than 10 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S.
Legislation reflecting the varied panoply of solutions has already been introduced. Led by conservative Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner, Jr. of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, the House passed a bill in January that would create a giant fence along the Mexican border, and increase criminal penalties for immigration violations -- including some mandatory minimum sentences -- for people who encourage illegal immigration and for immigrants who return to the United States after being deported. It would also broaden the range of deportable aliens so that, for example, repeat drunk drivers can be kicked out of the country.
The House bill would also force employers to verify employees' Social Security numbers against a national database, reimburse sheriffs in the counties that border Mexico for the costs of holding illegal immigrants, and make both detention and deportation of illegal immigrants easier. The Bush administration, which earlier had proposed a guest worker program, supported the House the bill, which was passed 239 to 182.
Critics of the House restrictions, including many Senate Republicans, say the curbs would trample states' rights and lead to more unlicensed drivers while ignoring what they believe to be the crux of the problem: the millions of undocumented people already entrenched in the workforce.
In the Senate, two pieces of major legislation were introduced last year. One bill, sponsored by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, calls for increased border security but also creates a guest worker program. It would require illegal aliens to pay all regular fees as well as a $1,000 fine to join the program and, after six years, another $1,000 fine to obtain a green card signifying legal permanent residence. Green card holders eventually can apply for citizenship.
Another bill was introduced last year by two border-state Republicans, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, and Senator John Kyl of Arizona. It proposes a work-and-return rationale rather than the McCain-Kennedy work-and-stay approach.