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, said the bill offered amnesty to illegal immigrants and sought unsuccessfully to insert tougher provisions. He told fellow committee members that the economy would turn sour someday and Americans workers would want the jobs that now go to illegal immigrants.
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, was one of four Republicans to support the bill, but he signaled strongly that some of the more controversial provisions could be changed when the measure reaches the Senate floor. That is “very frequently” the case when efforts to reach a broad bipartisan compromise falter, he noted.
In general, the bill is designed to strengthen enforcement of U.S. borders, regulate the flow into the country of so-called guest workers and determine the legal future of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
The bill would double the Border Patrol and authorizes a “virtual wall” of unmanned vehicles, cameras and censors to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border.
It also allows more visas for nurses and agriculture workers, and shelters humanitarian organizations from prosecution if they provide non-emergency assistance to illegal residents.
The most controversial provision would permit illegal aliens currently in the country to apply for citizenship without first having to return home, a process that would take at least six years. They would have to pay a fine, learn English, study American civics, demonstrate they had paid their taxes and take their place behind other applicants for citizenship, according to aides to Kennedy.
Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain, a potential presidential contender who worked with Kennedy on the issue, told reporters the street demonstrations had made an impact. “All those people who were demonstrating are not here illegally. They are the children and grandchildren” of those who may have been, he said.
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.
After a weekend of enormous rallies – a crowd of as many as 500,000 demonstrators in Los Angeles – thousands of students walked out of class in California and Texas to protest proposals to crack down on illegal immigrants.
“Do you see the community? Do you see how many people didn’t go to work today?” asked Janet Padron, attending a rally in Michigan.
Her remark underscored one of the issue’s complexities.
Senators on all sides 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 Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
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,” Bush said at a naturalization ceremony for new citizens. “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.