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September 1, 2006

Has America Become Immigrant Nation?

There are more than 11 million illegal aliens in the U.S. But could you spot one in a crowd? They're not always who you think they are

United States Immigration

Photo Credit: M. Clamer: Photo used for illustrative purposes only/Getty Image

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As you read this story, more than 11 million undocumented immigrants are living in your country. Another 400,000 are expected to arrive by next year. Yet despite their large numbers, you may never have seen an illegal immigrant-- or if you have, you don't know it. Afraid of being found out and deported, they often work while you are sleeping. They live on the other side of town. They don't go to the doctor when they're sick or to the police if they're victims of crime. Smugglers prey on their vulnerability; employers often abuse them with impunity. Many pay taxes but will never collect government benefits because of their illegal status. Still, they come. Some come to work in jobs Americans don't want. Others are captured by the country's spirit, letting a vacation lapse into a permanent stay. All are looking for something they didn't have at home: hope. Two major immigration reforms, in 1986 and 1996, couldn't slow their steady flow across America's borders: The number of undocumented has doubled since the early 1990s. But the reforms have made coming here more dangerous: New fences and more agents along the U.S.-Mexico border force immigrants to cross in increasingly remote areas. Since '96, more than 3000 people have died in the desert. This past year, while thousands of undocumented immigrants and their supporters held protests to bolster their demands for reform, Congress introduced two new bills in the latest attempt to fix the system. The Senate bill would introduce a guest-worker program and a path to citizenship for law-abiding immigrants; the House bill focuses on penalizing the undocumented by making it a felony to be here illegally. Both bills propose more fences and an even bigger border patrol. What these bills don't do is diminish the mix of desperation and ambition that brings people here in the first place. Officially, they are called "illegal aliens," but their dreams may not be too different from your own.

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