Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee began a final discussion -- called a markup -- of a 305-page immigration bill by its chairman, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, a Republican from Pennsylvania. The process could take weeks.
Over two days, the senators started in on dozens of proposed amendments, working to increase border agents and keep deportable immigrants jailed.
They talked about overstayed visas, human smugglers and the need for workers in occupations such as nursing and physical therapy. Lobbyists and activists whispered and took notes.
Business is watching especially closely.
Randal Johnson, a vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said employers want tougher border security, but they also need a way to use immigrant labor in industries where jobs go unfilled.
And, Johnson said, business wants a way to make current undocumented workers legal.
"They're just floating around now in legal limbo," Johnson said. "It makes no sense."
Range of proposals
Many who don't like illegal immigration favor a bill passed in December by the House of Representatives. It takes a law-and-order approach, focusing on border control, crime and deportation.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has said he wants something from the Judiciary Committee by the end of March.
An assortment of Senate bills, including Specter's, would increase guest workers to serve business interests that say the economy can't run without immigrant labor.
Specter's proposal would allow illegal immigrants now in the country to stay year to year if they and their employers come forward now.
Such measures are unthinkable to those who want all illegal workers deported. But they also displease immigrant supporters who rallied last week on Capitol Hill.
"We want permanent residency," said Griselda Moya of Tucson, Ariz., a citizen who works with the Border Action Network in her state.
"We also want a secure border," Moya added, "where people can feel safe."
If the Senate passes a bill, the two houses must reconcile differences between the bills.
But many lawmakers say any legislation must move quickly. They want immigration issues well behind them by November.
"Nobody wants to be faced at the next election with saying they were soft on border control," said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
All House seats and a third of the Senate seats are up for election in November.
Two sides of the issue
One afternoon last week, Ernesto Jimenez, 33, chased his two giggling toddler boys across the Capitol lawn as a speaker at a pro-immigrant rally shouted sound bites about family, the law and the ideals of America.
"You know, this world, we are the same people," he said. "You change the color, but the people -- the same. We are here because my country's poorer, you know?"
Jimenez came to the United States 10 years ago from Guatemala. He has a wife and children. Asked whether he is here legally, he shrugged.
And that irks people such as George Taplin. Two weeks ago, he said, seven Hispanic adults and three children moved into a $775,000 house next door to him in a suburban Virginia cul-de-sac. They put their trash outside in bags instead of garbage pails, and they don't own a car.
"It's blatant, and it's in your face," said Taplin, 51, a software engineer who heads the Virginia chapter of the Minuteman Project, a group trying actively to repel illegal immigrants.
Taplin said many lawmakers -- including Specter -- are out of touch with Americans.
"I want that [lawmaker] to live in my neighborhood," he said. "Live somewhere where you tell your 8-year-old daughter she can't go out to play because you don't know who's living next door."
Points of contention
Politically, there are several issues at hand for lawmakers:
* A split within the Republican party pits the pro-business wing, which wants a continuing flow of low-wage workers, and its law-and-order wing, which is intent on deporting all illegal immigrants.
* President Bush, former governor of a border state, has been a moderate on the issue, supporting the idea of guest workers. But his approval rating is at an all-time low, and many Republicans running for re-election are wary of siding with him.
* A high-profile border security campaign by the Minuteman Project has gained media notoriety and raised the political rhetoric.
The group's members station themselves at the border with radios and feed information to federal officials. Recently, the group began focusing on day-laborer sites in Virginia and Maryland, taking photos and trying to draw publicity.
(News & Observer researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.)