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Immigration debate heads from streets to Senate



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LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- Protests against a proposed crackdown on illegal immigrants brought demonstrators to the streets of Los Angeles again Sunday, but in much smaller numbers than Saturday's massive rally.

The Senate is expected to take up the issue this week, with at least four different proposals rattling around the Capitol.

The most controversial is a measure that passed the House of Representatives in December. It would fence off 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexican border and make crossing the border illegally a felony.

About 2,000 members of the largely Latino United Farm Workers rallied against that bill Sunday in Los Angeles before a commemorative Mass for the union's founder, Cesar Chavez. But the attendance was a far cry from the estimated half-million people who turned out for a Saturday protest.

The House bill, pushed by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, passed the House on a 239-182 vote in December. The Wisconsin Republican's bill also would require employers to verify the immigration status of workers before hiring them, with increased fines for employers who fail to comply. (Watch the town that welcomes immigrants -- 2:24)

Sensenbrenner's bill does not include two provisions that are supported by many other Republicans, including President Bush -- a guest-worker program and a method that would allow the nearly 12 million workers now in the United States illegally to earn legal status.

Bush, who is scheduled to attend a naturalization ceremony in Washington Monday, has worked to court Latino voters since his first run for president.

But his guest-worker proposal, popular with some in the business community, has proven divisive within his own party. Efforts to legalize illegal immigrants have been dismissed as "amnesty" by critics like Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican.

"If you say you can be here, you can do that, you can come across the border without our permission and you will be able to stay -- and, yes, there will be some, you know, a little fine or whatever -- that's not deportation, it is amnesty," Tancredo told ABC's "This Week."

Such a program, he said, would "send a horrible message."

Tancredo said enforcing existing laws would discourage illegal immigration, since employers would be unable to hire undocumented workers.

"If you actually began to enforce that, then you would see that millions of people will return home to their countries of origin voluntarily because, frankly, there's nothing else to do," he said.

But Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, called that concept "wishful thinking."

Specter said he would move a bill out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, that would require a criminal background check and a six-year employment record to qualify for legal status.

"They're going to be checked out very, very carefully," Specter told ABC. "They're not going to go ahead of people who have been waiting in line for citizenship. They're going to go to the end of the line for people who have stayed at home and gone through the normal channels."

A recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center found that about 7.2 million illegal immigrants held jobs in the United States, making up 4.9 percent of the overall labor force. Undocumented workers made up 24 percent of farmworkers and held 14 percent of construction jobs, the study found.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has called on Specter's committee to bring forward a bill by Monday.

If not, he said he will bring his own plan to the Senate floor for debate, just ahead of Bush's trip to Mexico for a summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN's "Late Edition" on Sunday: "We need the Mexican government and expect the Mexican government also to recognize the importance of defense of the borders and of American laws."

Among the immigration proposals floating around the Senate, Frist's most closely resembles the House plan in that it contains neither a guest-worker program, nor any legalization mechanism for people already in the country illegally.

Saturday, Bush argued for a guest-worker program in his weekly radio address, telling listeners the United States can be both "a welcoming society" and "a lawful society."

"As we debate the immigration issue, we must remember there are hard-working individuals, doing jobs that Americans will not do, who are contributing to the economic vitality of our country," he said. "America is a nation of immigrants, and we're also a nation of laws."

Another Senate bill, proposed by Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, and Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, would create a program that would allow guest workers to work in the country for three years with a visa that could eventually earn them permanent residency.

It would also create a legal process that could be used by people already in the country illegally to eventually gain legal status.

"What we have seen, across this country is that just enforcement, border enforcement, in and of itself does not solve the problem," Kennedy said Sunday.

"We have spent $20 billion in the last 10 years to try and deal with creating more fences and border guards and the rest, and we still haven't solved that problem. What we need is a comprehensive approach."

Republican Sens. John Cornyn of Texas and John Kyl of Arizona have introduced another measure, closer to what Bush has proposed, that would create a guest-worker program -- but would not include a legalization process for those now in the United States illegally.

Illegal immigrants already in the country could go back home and then apply to return as temporary workers.

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