Sunday, April 01, 2007

Immigration debate taken to Ellis Island

Immigration debate taken to Ellis Island
By Frank Davies -- MediaNews / Washington Bureau / San Jose Mercury News

NEW YORK - In the historic Great Hall of Ellis Island, where 12 million immigrants once trudged through to build a nation, top government officials Friday tried to recharge a campaign to solve the modern dilemmas of immigration.

Bush administration security officials, including Border Patrol Chief David Aguilar, along with a historian, demographer, economist and former officials grappled with the biggest problem: what to do with 12 million people - the estimated number of illegal immigrants in the country now.

"This magnificent building reminds us of what made America, and it's a great place to begin our discussion," said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the San Jose Democrat who decided to take the House immigration subcommittee to the epicenter of the nation's immigration story.

Lofgren, chair of the subcommittee since January, and other congressional Democrats want to push through a comprehensive immigration bill this year to improve border security, establish a guest-worker program and find a way to legalize the status of most undocumented workers.

`This is the year'

That's a huge task for such a contentious, complex issue. The Bush administration supports the effort, but most congressional Republicans resist it, and were able to block a major bill in the House last year after the Senate passed it.

"This is the year - it has to happen this year because it won't next year" during presidential and congressional campaigns, Lofgren said.

Two administration officials - Aguilar and Igor Timofeyev, director of immigration at the Homeland Security Department - gave a boost to comprehensive reform, without debating the details.

Aguilar claimed improved security measures contributed to a 30 percent reduction last year in illegal entries across the Mexican border.

"Well-defined immigration reform would help us concentrate on the people really trying to do us harm," Aguilar said. "The chaotic conditions now create opportunities for terrorists and criminals."


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