Panel OKs immigration rules

Senate bill eases path to citizenship, creates guest worker program


WASHINGTON -- A Senate committee yesterday voted to create a pathway for some of the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants to gain citizenship without first leaving the country, and to allow additional foreign workers to enter the United States temporarily to work under a program that would allow some to become citizens.

With its votes, the Senate Judiciary Committee sided with advocates of liberalized immigration rules and moved the Senate closer to an emotional confrontation with the House. A vocal faction of Republicans, in the House and throughout the party, believes that illegal immigrants are lawbreakers who should not be rewarded with citizenship, and that a guest worker program would only draw more undocumented workers to the country.

With a 12-6 vote, the Senate panel moved a sweeping overhaul of immigration laws to the Senate floor, where debate is expected to begin this week. The House passed its version of an immigration law overhaul last year, focusing largely on tightening security at the border and on toughening enforcement of immigration laws. It did not include a guest worker plan.

The Senate committee also eliminated a proposal that would have made it a felony to offer assistance to illegal immigrants other than in emergencies.

That measure had been denounced by humanitarian groups and some church leaders, including Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles, who had said he would instruct his priests to defy it. The proposal could be revived by the full Senate. A similar version has already passed the House.

The Senate committee vote marked a victory for immigrant advocates and in part for President Bush, who has urged Congress for two years to create a temporary worker plan but has argued against allowing those immigrants to gain citizenship.

The Senate panel, led by Republicans, approved the legislation even though a majority of its Republican members voted against it.

Supporters of the bill hailed it as a comprehensive effort that also includes measures to improve border security and interior enforcement, adding technology and agents along the border.

"What has passed is much tougher enforcement and a way to take the 12 million out of the shadows," said Sen. Sam Brownback, a Kansas Republican, referring to those who are currently in the country illegally. Brownback was one of the few Republicans who voted for the bill.

"I think we have produced a bill that is the product of serious debate," said Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican who leads the judiciary panel.

Looking forward to action on the Senate floor, Brownback said lawmakers were headed for "a difficult and visceral debate."

One opponent on the committee, Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said: "I voted against this committee bill because it rewards illegal immigrants and will be considered an amnesty by Americans. It will encourage further disrespect for our laws and will undercut our efforts to shore up homeland security. There is a better way to address this national security concern, and several of those who voted for the committee bill - including the chairman - did so with reservations."

It was not immediately clear what legislation the Senate would debate this week. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, has proposed his own immigration bill, which does not include a guest worker plan and stresses border security and improved enforcement of immigration law.

Frist had said earlier that the Senate would consider the bill produced by the Senate Judiciary Committee if Specter could lead his panel to a final proposal by last night. But congressional aides said it was unclear which legislation would be taken to the Senate floor.

Senators on the committee warned that their bill must be considered. "It's incumbent on the majority leader to take this bill to the floor," said Sen. John McCain, a Arizona Republican and co-sponsor of a bill that strongly influenced the committee's final product.

Nicole Gaouette writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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