From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The Senate Judiciary Committee took up the issue of immigration today, reopening what promises to be once again one of the most contentious debates in Congress. Last year, the Senate passed a sweeping plan to legalize millions of foreign workers and create a guest worker program. Senators Edward Kennedy and John McCain are expected to make public a revised version of that plan soon.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Much of the debate was aimed at preempting critics and swaying what senators call a rightfully skeptical American public. Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina asks what is the root cause of immigration? Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez told him the demands of our growing economy. The current 4.6 percent unemployment rate, he said, is historically low. Senator Graham responded.

Senator LINDSEY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): So one to make the argument that legal immigration is costing the American jobs just doesn't quite make sense, does it?

Secretary CARLOS GUTIERREZ (U.S. Department of Commerce): Unemployment is below the average of the past four decades.

Sen. GRAHAM: As a matter of fact, there's so many segments of our economy starving for labor. If we don't deal with that, our economy is going to go backward, not forward, is that true?

Sec. GUTIERREZ: That's correct.

LUDDEN: There was also much fretting over whether legalizing many of the estimated 12 million undocumented foreigners here now would be perceived as amnesty. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania noted the previous Senate bill already demanded that, in order to get right with the law, immigrants would have to pay a fine, pay back taxes, learn English and have no criminal record. He repeatedly asked what more could be done to make it tougher. Neither Commerce Secretary Gutierrez nor Homeland Security Chief Michael Chertoff had any suggestions, and Senator Kennedy was adamant none were needed.

Senator EDWARD KENNEDY (Democrat, Massachusetts): In this legislation there is no special treatment. There is no free pass. There is no jumping of the line. There is no total forgiveness. There's no unconditional pardon.

LUDDEN: Homeland Security Chief Chertoff said he believed the past years' immigration crackdown has begun to foster public confidence in a system that's long been ineffective. He said measures like putting the National Guard along the border has led to a significant decline in border crossings. And he said last year, his agency charged more than 700 people with knowingly employing illegal workers.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): The increase in criminal prosecutions reflect seven times the number of arrests that we saw in 2002 and is the most significant year of work site enforcement in living memory.

LUDDEN: Chertoff also stressed that the new bill must be workable. Last year in a complicated compromise, the Senate approved a plan that would have allowed some immigrants here awhile to become legal if they first returned home, but would have left out newcomers. Analysts on all sides agree that it would never work and it's widely believed that tiered system will be dropped. Otherwise, the recent change in power in Congress seems to mean little for a chamber that had already worked out a bipartisan answer to the immigration mess.

Ms. ANGELA KELLEY (Deputy Director, National Immigration Forum): I mean I think in many ways it's like the button was hit - the pause button on the tape, and now they let it off and they're just picking up where they left off last year.

LUDDEN: Angela Kelley is with the National Immigration Forum and is hoping an overhaul will pass this year.

Ms. KELLEY: There's such a sense of urgency that they do need to do something. This isn't an issue that they can kind of keep, you know, fluffing off and hoping that people don't notice.

LUDDEN: But Steve Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies says one thing that has changed is the influence of President Bush. Camarota opposes a widespread legalization. He knows that already last year House Republicans openly defied Mr. Bush's support for a guest worker program.

Mr. STEVE CAMAROTA (Research Director, Center for Immigration Studies): With the president politically so weak, his ability to get Republicans to support him is modest.

LUDDEN: If anything is to happen, just about everyone says it needs to be this year. Once the nation enters all-out presidential campaign mode, they say a hot button issue like legalizing immigrants won't stand a chance.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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