(CNSNews.com) - Conservative pundits sparred Sunday over the Bush administration's immigration policy, which some view as "amnesty" for the millions of illegal immigrants living in the United States.

"We have an obligation to our own people before we have an obligation to foreigners," Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, said during a debate at the National Review Institute's Conservative Summit in Washington, D.C.

"There is no economic need for immigration," Krikorian said, arguing that the net positive impact of illegal residents on the economy is offset by their use of public services.

He said Bush's "guest worker" program amounts to amnesty for the estimated 12 million illegal aliens who could be allowed to stay in the country after paying a fine or facing other penalties.

But Tamar Jacoby, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argued that Bush's plan is a moderate one, balancing extreme positions from mass deportation on one hand to full amnesty on the other.

She said the Bush proposal would create a more "realistic" immigration system that would make it easier for low-skilled workers to enter the country and allow Border Patrol officers to be on the lookout for those trying to enter covertly who pose national security threats.

"I'll never forget the Border Patrol agent who said to me, 'If another 9/11 happens and it happens on my watch because I'm chasing your next busboy or my next gardener, I'll never forgive myself,'" Jacoby said.

"Let's give those busboys and gardeners a legitimate way to come and then the only people trying to swim across the river will be terrorists and swindlers and the border guards can go after them."

Jacoby called the current system "a nudge nudge, wink wink system of unrealistic law that we don't really enforce" and called on elected officials to "bring our laws a little bit more in line with reality."

Krikorian argued that Bush's plan was not moderate but extreme, because "the fact remains that letting the illegal immigrants stay legally is the other extreme of the range of policy proposals."

"The actual middle ground," he said, "is between letting the illegal immigrants stay and forcibly rounding them all up and driving them out of the country, and that is essentially the point of view that informed the House bill that was passed a year or so ago, which I've described as attrition through enforcement."

The House and Senate could not agree on an approach to illegal immigration in 2006 and neither version of reform was able to pass both houses of Congress.

"The obvious solution," Krikorian said, is to "start enforcing the law, start reducing the illegal population every year."

He said removing incentives to be in the country illegally -- by cracking down on illegal aliens who falsify or steal Social Security numbers, or blocking access to public services -- would gradually lower the number of illegal residents.

A November poll conducted by Quinnipiac University found that 65 percent of Americans support a guest worker program that would allow illegal immigrants to register for temporary legal status and employment. Sixty-nine percent favored a program that would allow illegal residents to work toward citizenship over several years.

While Bush's approach is favored more by Democrats than Republicans, fewer than half of the poll's respondents were optimistic that the president would be able to work with the new Democrat-controlled Congress to pass reform legislation.

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