Senate panel approves immigration bill

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Protests continued in California, Texas and Detroit.

WASHINGTON -- The Senate Judiciary Committee approved sweeping election-year legislation Monday that clears the way for 11 million illegal aliens to seek U.S. citizenship, a victory for demonstrators who had spilled into the streets by the hundreds of thousands demanding better treatment for immigrants.

With a bipartisan coalition in control, the committee also voted down proposed criminal penalties on immigrants found to be in the country illegally. It approved a new temporary program allowing entry for 1.5 million workers seeking jobs in the agriculture industry.

"All Americans wanted fairness and they got it this evening," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., who played a pivotal role in drafting the legislation.

There was no immediate reaction from the White House, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he hoped President Bush would participate in efforts to fashion consensus legislation. "The only thing that's off the table is inaction," said Graham, who voted for the committee bill.

The 12-6 vote broke down along unusual lines, with a majority of the panel's Republicans opposed to the measure even though their party controls the Senate.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., seeking re-election this fall in his border state, sought repeatedly to insert tougher provisions into the legislation, but was generally rebuffed. "This has been a very, very important and historic debate," he said.

Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., had originally said debate on the issue in the Senate would begin today, but an aide said those plans had changed.

The committee approved the legislation after a weekend of enormous rallies -- as many as 500,000 in Los Angeles -- thousands of students walked out of class in California and Texas to protest proposals in Congress to crack down on illegal immigrants.

In Detroit, protesters waved Mexican flags as they marched to a downtown federal office building.

In addition, Kennedy prevailed on a proposal to allow an additional 400,000 green cards for future immigrants, regardless of the industry where they find jobs.

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., and other conservatives said anything but a requirement for illegal immigrants to return home amounted to amnesty, and he said he had national opinion on his side.

"Well over 60 percent of Americans in all the polls I see think it's OK to have temporary workers, but you do not have to make them citizens," said Kyl, who is seeking re-election this fall.

"We have a fundamental difference between the way you look at them and the way I look at them," Kennedy observed later.

The committee met as several thousand demonstrators rallied at the foot of the Capitol. Many were members of the clergy who donned handcuffs and sang "We Shall Overcome," the unofficial anthem of the civil rights era.

"The first Christian value is love thy neighbor," read some of the signs.

After a weekend of enormous rallies -- as many as 500,000 in Los Angeles -- thousands of students walked out of class in California and Texas to protest proposals in Congress to crack down on illegal immigrants.

In Detroit, protesters waved Mexican flags as they marched to a downtown federal office building.

"Do you see the community? Do you see how many people didn't go to work today," asked Janet Padron, a 22-year-old resident of Allen Park Mich.

Her remark underscored one of the complexities confronting Congress and the Bush administration as they grapple with the issue of immigration.

Senators on all sides of the issue agreed that illegal workers hold thousands of jobs that otherwise would go unfilled at the wages offered.

The agriculture industry is "almost entirely dependent on undocumented workers," said Feinstein. "It is unrealistic to think the workers will go home because they work here and the agriculture industry is dependent on them."

In purely political terms, the issue threatened to fracture Republicans as they head into the midterm election campaign -- one group eager to make labor readily available for low-wage jobs in industries such as agriculture, construction and meatpacking, the other determined to place a higher emphasis on law enforcement.

That was a split Bush was hoping to avoid after a political career spent building support for himself and his party from the fast-growing Hispanic population.

"America should not have to choose between being a welcoming society and being a lawful society," said the president. "We can be both at the same time."

Bush has said he favors a guest worker program, but it is unclear whether the administration would insist on a provision to require illegal immigrants already in the country to return home before they are allowed to apply for citizenship.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., chairman of the committee, said he was "trying to thread the needle" to produce a bill that could command widespread support.

At one point, he outlined a proposed compromise on illegal immigrants and citizenship. Neither Kyl nor Kennedy sounded supportive, though, and it receded as the debate continued.

The panel agreed with ease to double the size of the Border Patrol over the next several years, and decided on a closer vote to make sure that humanitarian organizations are sheltered from prosecution if they provide non-emergency assistance to illegal residents.

Whatever the outcome of the committee's debate the prospects for legislation clearing Congress before the elections did not appear strong. The House has cleared legislation that consists of provisions to toughen enforcement against violators of immigration laws. It contains no guest worker program.

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