The Immigration Debate: Behind The Protests

Tens of thousands of students have walked out over the past week protesting reform.

The images over the past five days have been inescapable. Hundreds of thousands peacefully taking to the streets in Los Angeles Saturday and tens of thousands of students walking out of their classes from Texas to Detroit to protest immigration reform they say could alter their lives and in some cases label them as felons.

On Monday 40,000 predominantly Latino students in Southern California streamed out of their classrooms and blocked four major freeways, chanting slogans like "Latinos Stand Up!" and waving Mexican flags, leading the Los Angeles Unified School District to order a lockdown on classrooms Tuesday, according to The Los Angeles Times.

But what is behind the mass movement and protests (see "Students Stage Walkout To Protest Immigration Proposals")? The action centers on a debate in Congress over a controversial guest-worker program that would allow foreign workers to live in the U.S. for a temporary period, a plan President Bush has been trying to push since he first took office.

But it also has to do with a competing proposal passed by the House in December that proposed erecting hundreds of miles of fencing along the U.S. border to keep illegal immigrants out. Most controversially, the measure would make aid and religious organizations helping illegal workers subject to felony charges and bump up the penalty for entering the U.S. without authorization into a felony as well.

It is currently a civil violation, not a criminal one, to live in the U.S. illegally, with a misdemeanor sentence for sneaking across the border of up to six months in prison.

There are more than 12 million illegal immigrants in the U.S., many of whom do low-wage jobs that American workers are not willing to do and some of whom pay taxes but do not take advantage of benefits such as Social Security because they fear deportation.

Though he has been talking about reform since he took office, Bush's push for new immigration laws was thrown off-course in part by 9/11, when the thought of clearing a way to citizenship for undocumented workers was abandoned in the rush to secure the borders for national-security purposes.

The Senate took up a proposal Tuesday that passed by a 12-6 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee the day before that would allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship even as it tightened border security with more high-tech monitoring equipment and more border agents. The measure, drafted by Republican Senator John McCain and Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, also beefs up existing rules banning the hiring of undocumented workers. Like the House bill, the Senate version would force employers to sign on to a national computer system to verify that their employees are documented. The tougher bill passed by the Republican-controlled House rejected Bush's call for a guest-worker proposal in favor of tighter security measures.

But the Senate rejected, for now, the House bill's provision to expand the 14-mile fence between the U.S. and Mexico by another 700 miles at a cost of more than $2 billion, according to USA Today.

Here are some of the terms you're likely to hear over the next week as this debate rages on:

Illegal immigrant: Someone who is living in the country without the proper paperwork. Most illegals have either crossed the border illegally or entered the country legally under a temporary visa that has lapsed.

Guest-worker program: Proposals under consideration that would allow foreign workers to live legally in the U.S. temporarily. Under current laws, people can come to the U.S. to temporarily work in agricultural and professional jobs, but there is a cap on how many foreign workers can get these exemptions. The draft McCain/ Kennedy bill sent to the full Senate Tuesday for debate would open the guest-worker program up to 400,000 foreign workers each year, who would be matched up with U.S. businesses through a computer database. But first, those companies would have to provide proof they could not find a U.S. citizen to do the job. Unlike the outline of a guest-worker program provided by Bush so far, and unlike Republican Senator Arlen Specter's competing proposal — which would give immigrants up to six years to remain working in the U.S. before going back to their home countries — the Kennedy/ McCain provision would eventually give these workers permanent residency.

Minutemen: A controversial group of mostly white, male border-watchers who are in the midst of their second annual patrol of the Arizona border, with a goal of stopping illegal immigration from Mexico.

Amnesty: Among the Senate Judiciary Committee proposals is one that would allow the millions of illegal immigrants in the U.S. to eventually become citizens, which is angering some Senators, who say the amnesty allows illegals to get in line ahead of the 3 million people currently waiting for visas. Supporters reject the amnesty tag, saying the "11-year-plan" would require illegal immigrants to work for six years in the U.S. before applying for permanent residency, then apply for citizenship five years after that, as well as pay a $2,000 fine, learn English, pass a criminal background check and pay any back taxes they owe. The proposal would also require temporary workers to work for six years before applying for a green card. President Bush has also rejected a call for amnesty for illegal immigrants.

Speaking Monday at a gathering of newly naturalized citizens, Bush reiterated his belief that the guest-worker program could be a way to legally help foreign workers fill jobs that Americans don't want.

"By creating a separate legal channel for those entering America to do an honest day's labor, we would dramatically reduce the number of people trying to sneak back and forth across the border," he said, adding a warning that the issue should not be used in a divisive partisan manner for political gain in an election year.

"No one should play on people's fears or try to pit neighbors against each other. No one should pretend that immigrants are a threat to American identity, because immigrants have shaped America's identity," Bush said.

The full Senate is expected to vote on the immigration bill later this week, but it was unclear at press time if Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist would allow the Senate proposal to go for a vote on the floor this week or, as threatened, substitute it with his own border-security-intensive bill, according to The New York Times. Aides to Frist told the paper he wants a vote on immigration this week but is reluctant to move on legislation that doesn't have the backing of a majority of the Republicans on the Judiciary Committee, where only four of 10 Republicans supported the McCain/ Kennedy measure.