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Emotions high in US immigration debate

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Immigrants from around the US came together in Washington, D.C., yesterday to lobby for immigration reform, while Senator Hilary Clinton added her opinion to the debate during a speech in Washington.

Many immigrants are in favor of the McCain-Kennedy bill, as among all the bills currently being debated, it is perceived as "promoting family unity." It would exempt immediate relatives of U.S. citizens from the annual cap on family-sponsored visas, which its supporters say would help cut down on federal immigration backlogs. It also would increase the number of employment visas.

By contrast, a proposal from Congressmen John Sensenbrenner and Peter King would make it a federal crime to enter the country illegally, and would also penalize any individual or group that offers aid to undocumented immigrants. Another proposal from Sen. Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, would create a temporary status for immigrants with no path to citizenship for them.

For immigrants who are in the country illegally, McCain-Kennedy would establish a guest worker program with a path to permanent resident status and citizenship. It calls for undocumented immigrants to pay a $2,000 fine, clear a background check, pass an English exam and pay back taxes if applicable. The U.S. would also issue three-year visas to at least 400,000 foreign workers each year. The act would increase fines for employers who hire undocumented immigrants, and increase border enforcement and control.

The House of Representatives has already approved a version of the McCain-Kennedy bill.

Meanwhile, speaking at a rally of Irish immigrants, Senator Hilary Clinton blasted the bill the House passed in December.

"Don't turn your backs on what made this country great," she said, adding the House bill "is a rebuke to what America stands for."

The House measure makes unlawful presence in the United States, which is currently a civil offense, a felony.

Clinton called it "an unworkable scheme to try to deport 11 million people, which you have to have a police state to try to do."

She called instead for immigration reform "based on strengthening our borders in order to make us safer from the threat of terrorism."

While her remarks will draw attention for the implications for the 2008 presidential race, many of those in the crowd traveled from New York, where she is up for re-election this year.

As she was speaking, the senator also sent a four-page letter to constituents outlining her views on immigration. She shied away from specifics in the letter but said she supports allowing at least some of the estimated 11 million undocumented workers to earn citizenship.

Last week Specter said emotions on the immigration issue are running high and he has seen "virtually no agreement on anything."