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Immigration Reaches a Summit

Prepared by: Esther Pan
Updated: March 30, 2006


While intense debate about illegal immigration continued in Congress, President Bush arrived in the Mexican resort town of Cancun for a trilateral summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Border security and trade issues—particularly a long dispute over U.S. tariffs on Canadian softwood lumber (Reuters)—are hot topics for the meeting. But immigration will be at the forefront, and Fox, who hopes to revive his party's flagging popularity ahead of elections, will pressure Bush to push for a guest worker program (NYT). For Mexico, the lack of a pathway to legalization for Mexican migrant workers represents an unfulfilled promise by the Bush administration (CSMonitor).

A CFR task force report on North America has called on leaders of the three nations to adopt a new strategy to help secure and unite the continent. It includes recommendations to expand temporary worker programs, ease the movement of goods in North America and innovations such as a North American Border Pass, with biometric identifiers. Bush has repeatedly said he favors a temporary worker program, while at the same time supporting a strengthening of borders, as he outlined in his latest Saturday radio address, saying he supports new spending for tightened borders but also a temporary worker program to "create a legal way to match willing foreign workers with willing American employers to fill jobs that Americans will not do."

Some 750,000 illegal immigrants arrive in the United States each year, and there are now about 12 million illegal immigrants in the country (Pew Hispanic Center). Bills generated by each side of Congress represent opposing sides of the immigration issue. The House of Representatives passed a bill in December proposing tough measures -- including building a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border and making it a crime to help illegal aliens -- aimed at preventing illegal immigration. The Senate judiciary committee approved a bill March 27 that would create a guest worker program for new illegal immigrants and allow illegal workers in the United States to work toward citizenship (NYT). The full Senate and House will now have to try and reconcile the two drafts. The issues surrounding immigration reform are analyzed in this CFR Background Q&A by's Esther Pan.

The Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, DC, nonprofit that studies policies affecting immigration and refugees, offers a side-by-side comparison of all the legislative proposals on immigration currently before Congress, as well as a comprehensive series of background briefs illuminating the major aspects of the immigration issue.

A Washington Post analysis says any immigration proposal that enacts only punitive measures would be doomed to failure because it ignores the real demand for labor in the U.S. economy. CFR Senior Fellow Jagdish N. Bhagwati says the current immigration guest worker proposal threatens a repeat performance of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, which granted amnesty to some 3 million illegal immigrants but failed to stop the flow of illegal immigration. A Congressional Research Service report analyzes the history of guest worker programs and Congressional attempts to reform immigration.

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