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A Q&A look at the immigration debate
Scripps Howard News Service


April 29, 2005

Washington - The controversy over immigration is raging, with Congress primed to pass a law that would make crossing into the United States illegally a bit less inviting. Here is a Q&A look at the debate.

Q: What is the immigration situation?

A: Studies have determined that current immigration levels are greater than the historic average. Census Bureau data estimate that as of March 2004, the nation's immigrant population exceeded 34 million, the highest number on record.

Q: Why is this seen as a problem?

A: The debate doesn't revolve around immigration in general, but illegal immigration - those coming to or remaining in the United States without proper authorization or documentation.

The Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington think tank, estimates the population of illegal aliens reached 10 million as of November 2004. The Census Bureau maintains that this population increases by as many as 500,000 every year. And the Pew Hispanic Center puts the number of all undocumented immigrants at 10.3 million as of March 2004 - a 23 percent increase over the center's 8.4 million estimate in 2000.

Q: How do immigrants enter illegally?

A: Most simply enter without being apprehended and are referred to as EWI - entry without inspection. The U.S-Mexico border stretches some 2,000 miles and the U.S. Border Patrol doesn't have enough agents to cover the entire stretch. In 1965, the number of aliens entering illegally who were nabbed by the Border Patrol was 110,000. In 2004, the figure was about 1.2 million. Some analysts estimate that two or three immigrants make it into the United States for every one caught by the Border Patrol.

Q: Are there other ways?

A: Yes. Some who entered the country legally remain after their visas have expired. About one-third of those in the United States illegally have overstayed their welcome.

Q: Where do most illegal immigrants come from?

A: Mexico. According to the Census Bureau's most recent hard numbers, as of 2000, there were an estimated 8.7 million illegal aliens in the United States. At that time, the bureau placed the number from Mexico at 3.9 million, meaning almost 45 percent came from that one country.

Q: Why are they entering the United States?

A: The United States limits the number of visas it issues every year. Those unable to obtain a visa often gain entry illegally. The Center for Immigration Studies asserted that the two "magnets" that attract illegal aliens are jobs and family connections. The typical worker in Mexico earns about one-tenth of an American counterpart, and numerous American employers are searching for cheap labor - no questions asked.

Q: Does illegal immigration create problems in the United States?

A: It's all according to whom you ask, and even then there's a difference in degree. Almost everyone agrees that the ease with which illegal aliens enter the country is indicative of a security problem - a concern that has grown since 9/11. The thinking is if millions of Mexican nationals have managed to cross the border, what's to stop potential terrorists?

Q: What else?

A: Groups looking to tighten immigration laws, like the Center for Immigration Studies, maintain that illegal aliens are taking jobs from U.S. citizens or those who are legally in the country. They also place a strain on the nation's social safety net since they can avail themselves of health care and the public schools for their children.

And because illegal immigrants ship much of their earnings back to their nation of origin, the economy suffers. Those representing illegals claim that they often fill low-paying, menial jobs that most Americans avoid - like farm labor. Costs would inflate and services would go wanting without their contribution, these advocates claim.

Q: What does President Bush say?

A: As the former governor of Texas, the president is well-attuned to the immigration situation. He has floated a proposal that would distribute work visas to illegal immigrants, who would then be permitted to apply for permanent residency. The proposal has faced staunch objections from his own Republican Party.

Q: So what is being done?

A: The president's budget for fiscal year 2006 proposes to increase spending on the U.S. Customs and Border Protection by 4.8 percent to $6.7 billion _ one of the biggest increases outside of defense. On March 30, the Department of Homeland Security announced that an additional 734 agents were being assigned to the Arizona border region.

Also last month, the House attached an amendment to the $81.3 billion spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan that would encourage states to issue driver's licenses only to those legally in the country. The package also provides federal judges with greater discretion in denying asylum claims and would waive claims blocking construction of a border fence near San Diego. The Bush administration supports the provision and the Senate will likely go along.

Q: What about a fence?

A: Building a fence along the entire border with Mexico would cost about $9 billion. The Immigration Policy Center, another Washington think tank, said such a fence represents "an ineffective means of combating undocumented immigration."

Q: Who are these "Minutemen" that we've been hearing about lately?

A: They are members of a grassroots movement patrolling the Arizona-Mexico border who maintain the United States has been lax in maintaining security. The number of Minutemen comes to about 800 and they report illegal entries to the Border Patrol.


E-mail Bill Straub at StraubB(at)

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