Panel approves major immigration reform bill

If approved by the full Senate, measure must be resolved with a House-passed bill that is devoted mainly to beefed-up border security.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved on Monday a sweeping immigration reform bill that could allow more than 11 million illegal immigrants to remain in the United States, work and eventually seek citizenship.

By a bipartisan 12-6 roll call, the panel sent the bill to the Senate. Four of the committee's 10 Republicans joined all eight Democrats to clear the bill, one of the most far-reaching immigration measures in decades. Joining Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., in backing the measure were Sens. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Sam Brownback, R-Kan.

Specter said the provisions in the committee bill could likely change when it reaches the Senate floor.

The committee was working under the gun, with Frist setting a midnight Monday deadline for the panel to approve a bill for consideration by the Senate. Otherwise, he said he would go forward with his own measure.

"I'm determined to get this bill out today," Specter told the committee as it started its daylong session, adding he would "go beyond midnight" if necessary. The Frist ultimatum drew complaints from both Republicans and Democrats who said more time was needed to fashion a comprehensive bill as complicated as this one. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., for one, complained that it was a "forced march" that she resented.

The Senate is expected to take at least two weeks debating the bill. If it is approved, it must be resolved with a House-passed bill that is devoted mainly to beefed-up border security with no provisions for the legalization of illegal aliens or temporary worker programs.

It is unclear whether the Senate bill will clash with President Bush's vision of a guest worker program which may or may not require illegal immigrants to return to their home country before becoming naturalized.

It was Graham who provided an amendment that was considered the heart of the measure. His plan, approved on a 12-5 roll call would allow the estimated 11 to 12 million undocumented workers to "come out of the shadows" and remain in the United States without fear of deportation.

However, they would have to meet stiff conditions. They would had to have held a steady job since Jan. 7, 2004, undergo a criminal background check, and pay a $1,000 penalty for past illegal status. They would receive special nonimmigrant visas good for six years. After that time, they could apply for a permanent work visa, or green card, if they pay back taxes and maintain model behavior.

That green card could pave the way for eventual citizenship. Anticipating his plan would be denounced as "amnesty,' Graham argued in effect amnesty is in the eyes of the beholder. "What is amnesty?," he asked. "It's what you want it to be."

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., won by voice vote an amendment to the Graham plan to require applicants for green cards to "go to the end of the line" of all others waiting in their home countries for the right to enter the United States.

The Graham plan was virtually identical to a proposal that had been advocated by Kennedy and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for a broad legalization of undocumented workers.

In addition, the committee adopted an amendment by Feinstein to allow a five-year pilot program to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for new blue cards so they can work legally in agriculture jobs, which is vital to her state. In California, the agriculture industry is "almost entirely dependent on undocumented aliens," she said.

There would be a cap of 1.5 million of these temporary agriculture workers under her plan. And it would put in place procedures for them to eventually apply for permanent green card status. Feinstein's amendment was accepted on a 11-5 vote, with all the opposing votes from Republicans.

In addition to Feinstein's agriculture worker proposal, the panel adopted by 11-6 a temporary worker program proposed by Kennedy. The plan worked out tentatively last week would allow up to 400,000 people a year to enter the country as guest workers in non-agriculture jobs, and they could eventually apply for permanent green card status.

Like the House bill, the Senate measure also would beef up the nation's borders. The fight for stiffer borders was led by Sens. John Kyl, R-Ariz., Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and John Cornyn, R-Texas.

An amendment by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., was approved on a 10-7 vote to exclude so-called "good Samaritans" from criminal penalties for helping illegal immigrants or providing them with health or other care. Kyl complained that Durbin's plan "sweeps too broadly" and could possibly aid smugglers. But his amendment to narrow the Durbin plan failed 10-7.

Another Durbin amendment to prevent criminalizing visa holders for overstaying their visas was accepted by 11-6.

On voice votes, Feinstein pushed through an amendment adding more customs and ports-of-entry agents, and a second to make it a crime to knowingly allow immigrant smugglers to dig tunnels on one's property.

A Cornyn amendment for expedited removal of illegal Salvadoran immigrants was approved on an 8-7 roll call. Kennedy tried to block the plan unsuccessfully saying the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals was currently considering a case involving expedited extradition of Salvadorans.

Kyl lost a series of votes to require guest workers and newly legalized workers to return to their home countries before applying for permanent visas. One amendment rejected on an 11-5 would have required temporary guest workers to return to their home countries before applying for permanent green card status. By a 12-3 margin, a similar Kyl amendment to require undocumented workers to return to their home countries before applying for permanent visas was defeated.

Another Kyl plan - a modified version of his other failed proposals - to require undocumented workers to return to their countries after five years before applying for permanent status lost by a 13-2 roll call.

Kyl won, however, on a voice vote an amendment to bar temporary workers if the local unemployment rate reached 11 percent.

Sessions succeeded by 13-2 to delay implementation of the legislation by 180 days to give Congress additional time to make further changes if necessary. But his proposal for a study of additional border security lost by an 11-5 roll call.

A proposal introduced by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to limit so-called H1B visas for specialized technology workers to 220,000 a year without any exemptions was defeated 7-4.

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