By Kathy Kiely, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON — While Congress and the White House remain divided over what to do with the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants living in the USA, a new poll shows the American public appears to have reached a consensus on the question.
A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken last weekend found that 78% of respondents feel people now in the country illegally should be given a chance at citizenship.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who is drafting legislation to grant illegal immigrants an opportunity to stay in the USA, said: "As with so many issues, the American people are ahead of Washington on immigration reform. They know that only a plan that offers a path to earned citizenship will fix our broken system."
Disagreements about the fate of the nation's illegal residents were a major factor in the deadlock that kept Congress from enacting an immigration bill last year, despite the support of key Democratic and Republican leaders, as well as President Bush. The president and members of his Cabinet, including Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, have said it would be prohibitively expensive to deport all the nation's illegal residents.
But many conservatives strongly oppose to putting illegal immigrants on a path to citizenship. "You'd be rewarding them for breaking our laws," said Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif.
Supporters of a plan to give illegal immigrants a chance to stay in the USA expect smoother sailing for legislation in a Democratic-controlled Congress. Both Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., have said they want to work with Bush to enact legislation this year. Reid has set aside the last two weeks of May for debate on an immigration bill; House Democrats hope to act before the August recess.
Even so, immigrant rights advocates have been taken aback by some cracks in last year's bipartisan coalition.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who co-sponsored last year's Senate-passed immigration bill with Kennedy, has stepped back from the leading role he had played in the talks as he focuses on his presidential campaign. Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigration group, told reporters this week that McCain's absence from talks "destabilizes the debate."
A leaked White House proposal recommended making illegal immigrants pay a $10,000 fine in order to have a chance at citizenship. White House spokesman Scott Stanzel called it a negotiating document. "It is neither wise nor realistic to round up and deport millions of illegal immigrants, and the president believes this issue should be addressed without amnesty and without animosity," he said.
But Sharry expressed concern. "We're in a very different posture than we thought we would be," he said.