COLUMBIA - On Wednesday, the Bush administration announced Operation Scheduled Departure, a Department of Homeland Security program that will allow illegal immigrants to turn themselves in at specified customs offices and leave the country voluntarily. It begins on Tuesday and will end Aug. 22.
The program is an effort to address the lingering issue of illegal immigration. It has long been a topic of discussion in the United States, but the debate about how to address it has reached new levels over the past couple of years.
In an effort to enforce immigration laws and to quell complaints that immigrants are taking American jobs, the government has tried various routes, including guest-worker programs and beefed-up border security, to reduce the number of people who avoid going through legal channels to enter the country. Candidates for Missouri's 9th District seat in the U.S. House of Representatives shared their opinions about what might work.
Brock Olivo, a former MU and NFL football player, said that rules in place are good, but need to be enforced.
He said the employee verification system needs to be made tamper-proof and that border patrol officers should be asked what they need to do their jobs better.
"We do not need to discourage immigration," he said. "We need to send a very strong message to people that if you're going to immigrate to America, you'd better be ready to play by the rules. Otherwise, you're not welcome."
Olivo said he understands that the process is long and arduous - his wife, a native of Italy, is pursuing citizenship - but jumping through those hoops is necessary.
State Rep. Danie Moore, R-Fulton, also has an immigrant relative - her mother. She said she understands how much work it is to be in the country legally, but that the correct laws are already on the books. They simply need to be better enforced.
"We're a nation of laws," she said. "They have to be legal. You don't teach people the right thing to do by having no consequences."
Moore added that the precautions are not to prevent the average person from entering the country, but people who might be terrorists. She said many immigrants' illegal status makes them vulnerable to employers or others who might prey upon them. If they were here legally, she said, they would have the power to fight abuses.
Dan Bishir, a former buildings inspector in St. Peters, said no one should be in the country illegally, and that it is both a matter of national security and of the economy. He said his first priority would be to find businesses that employ illegal immigrants. He'd also like to see more immigration officials and border patrol officers hired.
Bishir said closing the borders would lead to fewer problems with drugs.
Blaine Luetkemeyer, former Missouri tourism director, opposes amnesty for illegal immigrants and would deport people in an "orderly fashion." The end goal, he said, would be to make every illegal immigrant leave the United States and wait a certain period of time before re-entering.
He said the problem could be fixed in the long-term by removing incentives, particularly jobs, so most people don't choose to come here illegally. He also supports more security measures, such as a border fence, and said increasing the number of people allowed to be in the country could help ease the problem.
State Rep. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, sponsored House Bill 1549, recently signed by Gov. Matt Blunt, which enacted strict penalties for businesses that hire illegal immigrants.
He said illegal immigration is an important matter for the federal government and that he would support creating a border fence, making sure people don't overstay their visas and increasing the number of people who can come into the country legally.
Steve Gaw, a former Missouri Public Service Commission chairman and a former state representative for the 22nd district, said it is necessary to enforce existing immigration laws, a practice he said might not always be occurring.
"I think we see sometimes, when individuals are found that are known to be here illegally, that the federal government needs to take action and follow up with that," he said.
Still, Gaw said last month in a debate at Stephens College, it's not the issue that matters most to 9th District voters.
"I think that it's an issue that deserves some examination to see where it is today and whether or not the laws are appropriate, but it's something I want to study more," he said.
State Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, said illegal immigration is an issue of national security. She said a comprehensive reform package that includes securing the borders and cracking down on employers would be the best solution.
"Part of this is that employers have created demand, and the created demand has led us to this problem, in addition to some economic factors throughout the continent," she said during last month's debate at Stephens College.
Former state representative and senator Ken Jacob, of Columbia, said during the debate that the United States cannot allow the "chaos" caused by illegal immigration to continue, and suggested providing aid to immigrants' countries of origin and penalizing American employers who hire illegal immigrants.
"I don't know about putting them in jail, but I think you could penalize them very severely," he said at the debate.
Jacob said he opposed building a wall around the United States' borders and would support amnesty in some cases.
Marion County Presiding Commissioner Lyndon Bode said the United States needs to "follow through with the laws we've got" and that employers need to be aware of the status of their employees.
He has signed a pledge to work to make English the nation's official language.
"We need to have a centralized form of government in one language," and the one that is most widely spoken in the United States is English, Bode said.
Tamara Millay said she favors amnesty for illegal immigrants.
"Libertarians may differ on this issue, but I've always been an open-borders Libertarian," she said. "I think anyone who wants to come here and be peaceful and work should be able to. That's what made our country great over the years."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.