If there was any doubt that immigration is a hot-button issue this year, it was erased by this weekend’s pro-immigrant rights rallies attended by 500,000 in Los Angeles, 50, 000 in Denver and thousands in other cities. The Senate Judiciary Committee today begins debate on punitive immigration reform bills like H.R. 4437, which would make it a felony for undocumented persons to be in the United States.

Newsweek examines the “border wars” in its new issue, and in particular, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo and his mission to rid the country of those who entered it without proper papers.

….the four-term Coloradan has positioned himself as the loudest, angriest voice against the estimated 11 million illegal aliens now living in the United States. They are “a scourge that threatens the very future of our nation,” he says. He laments “the cult of multiculturalism,” and worries about America’s becoming a “Tower of Babel.”

The Denver Post today likens the debate to a rumble.

The Senate is hardly of one mind. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., supports a security-oriented bill similar to the House bill with no guest-worker program. Sen. Arlen Specter’s Judiciary Committee tentatively OK’d a guest-worker plan (including a possible path to citizenship). Another plan, authored by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Ted Kennedy, D- Mass., would lead to citizenship for illegal immigrants.

Where’s Tancredo?

We asked Tancredo what it would take for him and his House supporters to sign off on a guest-worker program. “It would take secure borders and total enforcement of the law against employers hiring people who are here illegally,” he said. “The guest-worker plan that I would envision does not include one for people who already have broken the law … .”

As the Post says, “welcome to ringside.” But keep your eyes on the street, not just the Senate. Rallies like these are bound to become more prevalent:

Immigration reform advocates scheduled a rally Monday at the U.S. Capitol, where dozens of members of the clergy planned to wear handcuffs to protest what they said is the House bill’s criminalization of their aid programs for poor immigrants.