One of the hottest and most difficult issues in Washington and the country today is immigration reform. Emotions run high about the fact that we have millions of undocumented people already in the country, even though it is obvious that our economy needs the additional labor. Many jobs would not get done if we had to rely only on American citizens to do them.

Congress is wrestling with several proposals to set new national policy on illegal immigration. Many Republicans have said it is essential to pass immigration legislation before the elections this November because of voter unrest in some districts. It is still too early in the process to speculate whether an immigration bill will pass both the House and Senate and be signed into law by the President.

A comprehensive legislative solution would deal with at least three aspects of the problem: border security, a guest worker program, and the status of undocumented people already in the country.

Border security is a flashpoint in the contentious debate because it is obvious that the border is, if not wide open, at least porous. People slip through the southern border every day and night. Many members of Congress want to provide funds to repair and extend a fence along the Arizona border and to increase the number of authorized enforcement agents.

More contentious is the issue of a guest worker program, which President Bush supports. The idea is to allow American companies to offer jobs to qualified foreigners for a specified period of time.

Under one approach in the Senate, potential immigrants or guest workers would be admitted into the United States for an initial two-year period during which time they could not apply for permanent resident status (green cards). When the initial visa expires, they would be required to leave the country for one year, before returning and applying for a three-year temporary work visa that could be renewed once.

An employer could petition for permanent residence status on behalf of an employee holding a three-year visa. The employee would be eligible to petition for permanent residency on his own behalf after the first year of a renewed three-year visa. Employees would be eligible for a waiver of the requirement that they leave the United States under certain conditions, including a petition by an employer saying they were a “critical employee” and the loss of that worker would severely disrupt their businesses. Details are not yet final, but the number of guest worker visas would probably be capped at 400,000 in the first year.

Finally, a controversial issue is what to do about immigrants who are already in the country. A bill by Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) would permit undocumented workers to apply for six-year temporary work visas. If they want to become permanent residents, they would be required to pay a $1,000 fine and $1,000 in application costs, pay all back taxes, learn English, and pass a background check.

During deliberations in the Senate Judiciary Committee, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), joked that many current U.S. citizens might not be able to pass those requirements.

“It’s not a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” he said.

Another issue is whether undocumented immigrants could stay in the United States while working toward permanent residence and eventual citizenship. Congress has to decide if they will be required to return to their home countries before applying for permanent residence, which would put them on track eventually to seek citizenship. Congress wants to avoid anything that looks like amnesty for undocumented workers, which is opposed by the public, according to polls.

The committee chairman, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), has drafted an amendment to clarify that no undocumented immigrant would be permitted to apply for a green card until the backlog of current green card applications has been resolved. The backlog now contains about three million applications, which the Department of Homeland Security says will take six years to process.

These questions will be sorted out in the Senate, which will then have to come to agreement with the House, which passed a bill to tighten up security without addressing the guest worker issue. The real question is whether the House of Representatives will accept a bill that goes beyond border security and enforcement.

The plain fact is that immigrant workers take many jobs that Americans simply do not want to fill. Our economy is generating more jobs than we have job-seekers. Immigrants come here to do a job and make a contribution to society. It is past time for Congress to recognize their contributions and give them some realistic way to regularize their status.