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11 Apr, 2013 10:01

Thousands protest as US debates future of illegal immigrants

Pro-immigration activists rallied in 18 states Wednesday in a show of strength as Congress considers immigration measures that would allow some 11 million illegal aliens to remain in the country at a time of economic uncertainty.

US Senators are expected to put the final touches on a comprehensive immigration reform package this week, opening the door to passionate debate over how to secure the border, reign in lax immigration procedures and whether to grant citizenship to the millions of illegal aliens now living in the United States.

“Immigration reform is in the eye of the beholder. What they are really pushing for is amnesty of some form,” Ira Mehlman, a spokesperson for the conservative Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, DC, told AP. “It might go over well with supporters, but it’s not going to necessarily influence people or members of Congress who are opposed or even on the fence.”

Organizers said tens of thousands of demonstrators gathered nationwide, while about 400 busloads of activists converged on the west lawn of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, waving signs and chanting "Si, se puede" – Spanish for "Yes, we can."

Latinos rally in favor of comprehensive immigration reform on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 10, 2013 (Reuters / Larry Downing)

Many of the participants in Wednesday’s rallies were of Hispanic origin, and have pledged support for President Barack Obama, who called for sweeping immigration reform during his State of Union address in February.

At the same time, the Republican Party, fearful of alienating Hispanic voters, many of whom have relatives attempting to gain legal status, understand they must back some kind of immigration initiative, analysts have said.

Democrats and Republicans are also mindful of the increasing number of Americans who are opposed to extending legal rights to illegal aliens, especially as the US economy remains in the doldrums.

Opponents argue that extending citizenship to people living illegally in the country will aggravate financial problems at a time when the US economy remains vulnerable and many government-sponsored programs are being cut back. Also, awarding legal rights to individuals who broke the law to gain entry into the country could supposedly set a bad example, sparking even more illegal immigration.

"There ought to be a rally for the 20 million Americans who can't find a full-time job," NumbersUSA President Roy Beck, whose group advocates reductions in immigration levels, said in a statement Wednesday.

A man dressed as Uncle Sam poses for photos as tens of thousands of immigration reform supporters march in the "Rally for Citizenship" on the West Lawn of the US Capitol in Washington, DC, on April 10, 2013 (AFP Photo / Saul Loeb)

In a concession to the anti-immigration crowd, the bill is expected to require heightened surveillance of the 3,169km (1,969mi) border that separates Mexico and the US, and stiffer penalties for individuals caught trying to cross the border.

Some states have already enacted controversial measures to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Arizona – the US state with the highest number of illegal border crossings from Mexico – passed legislation that hands law enforcement officers more powers in determining who is an illegal immigrant, if there is reasonable suspicion. It has even introduced Predator drones in its bid to secure its border.

Called the Vehicle Dismount and Exploitation Radar (‘Vader’ for short), the drone system was deployed in Arizona in March 2012, and is now used three to four days a week for eight to 12 hours a day tracking movement along the US-Mexico border, according to the Los Angeles Times.

The immigrant reform movement entered the national spotlight in 2007, when second-generation children of illegal immigrants began to organize protests.  In 2010, Congress debated but failed to gain approval of the so-called ‘Dream Act,’ which would have given legal status to some young immigrants who came to the US as children.

Congress could proceed to vote on the bill at the end of May.