Founded by immigrants and praised as a haven for the oppressed, the US is now struggling to decide the fate of as many as 12 million people living in the country illegally.
The Senate takes up the emotional debate on the heels of weekend rallies that drew hundreds of thousands of people protesting attempts to toughen laws against immigrants. Among the election-year proposals that US President George W. Bush and members of Congress are considering:
* Erecting a fence on the Mexico border to deter illegal immigration.
* Treating people who sneak across the border as felons to be deported.
* Allowing foreigners to stay in the country legally as custodians, dish washers, construction workers and other low-paid employees.
* Allowing those working in the US a path to citizenship.
* Requiring them to get in line behind everyone else back in their home countries who want to become Americans.
Senate aides met into the evening on Sunday in advance of a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting to debate legislation, but there was no evidence of a breakthrough on the issue most in dispute. Lawmakers have been divided on whether illegal immigrants should be required to return to their home country before they become eligible for US citizenship.
For his part, Bush arranged to attend a naturalization ceremony yesterday for 30 new citizens at Constitution Hall, a few blocks from the White House.
And demonstrations are planned near the Capitol, including a prayer service with immigration advocates and clergy who plan to wear handcuffs to demonstrate the criminalization of immigration violations.
Bush is going to Mexico this week for a meeting with the leaders of Mexico and Canada. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Sunday that it was important that Mexico "recognize the importance of defense of the borders and of American laws."
Protests raged across the country over the weekend, led by more than 500,000 people who marched through downtown Los Angeles on Saturday in one of the largest demonstrations for any cause in recent US history. Marchers also took to the streets in Phoenix, Arizona; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Dallas, Texas; and Columbus, Ohio.
Demonstrations continued on Sunday, when nearly 3,000 people, many wrapped in Mexican flags, rallied at the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus and an estimated 3,500 United Farm Workers members and their supporters protested in Los Angeles.
The president, working hand-in-hand with the business community that relies on cheap labor, is pressuring Congress to allow immigrants to stay in the country legally if they take a job that Americans are unwilling to do.
Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, also supports the idea and has vowed that his committee will advance a bill to the full Senate on Monday, even if they have to work "very, very late into the night."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has said that whether or not a bill gets out of the Judiciary Committee, he would open two weeks of debate on the issue today. He has offered a plan that would tighten borders, add Border Patrol agents and punish employers who hire illegal immigrants, because he says the most important concern is improving national security in an age of terrorism. His bill sidesteps the question of temporary work permits, but he has said he is open to the idea.