Immigration reform bill advances amid protests

An immigration reform bill that would create a guest worker program pushed by President George W. Bush won approval on Monday from a U.S. Senate panel against a backdrop of noisy and emotional protests in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit.

The Senate is struggling to enact compromise legislation to better secure America’s borders while offering millions a chance to be in the country legally, setting up a politically bruising battle with the U.S. House of Representatives, where the Republican majority has come out against legal incentives.

The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the measure on a 12-6 vote. It goes to the full Senate later this week, where a heated debate is expected over the guest worker program, which critics call an amnesty for some illegal immigrants.

The committee’s action came as President George W. Bush warned on Monday against fearmongering on the divisive issue.

“No one should play on people’s fears or try to pit neighbors against each other,” Bush said. “No one should pretend that immigrants are a threat to American identity, because immigrants have shaped America’s identity.”

Provisions of the measure that would allow some of the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants a chance to legalize their status and earn citizenship will set the stage for a bruising election-year battle with the House, where many of the Republican majority oppose incentives for illegal immigrants.

But Senate backers said it is not an amnesty.

“A path to earned citizenship is what this bill is about,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who joined Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Edward Kennedy in offering the measure. He said it was “an eleven-year journey” to earn citizenship and candidates would have to pay a fine, undergo criminal background checks, learn English and pay their taxes.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, called it a “a measured bill.”

With his job approval rating at a low ebb, Bush is facing a new test of his political strength during a mid-term election year, weeks after Republicans deserted him on a controversial deal to allow an Arab company to manage six U.S. ports.


In Los Angeles on Monday, hundreds of mostly Latino students blocked two major downtown freeways, chanting in Spanish and waving flags from Mexico and El Salvador. Traffic was snarled until police could move the students off the road but no accidents, injuries or arrests were reported.

In Boston, more than 2000 people gathered in the city’s common, waving Latin American, Caribbean and Irish flags while marching downtown and calling for urgent immigration reform.

“I’m here to support the Hispanic community,” said Amilcar Gonzalez, a 23-year-old illegal janitor from Guatemala. “We are not terrorists, we just want to work.”

The House in December passed a tough border security and enforcement bill that called for construction of a fence along the U.S. border with Mexico and would require employers to check the status of their workers. It would make living in the country without proper documents a felony and does not include Bush’s guest worker program.

That bill has sparked hundreds of thousands of mostly Hispanic demonstrators to protest. Thousands turned out on Monday in San Francisco and Los Angeles and some 4,000 took to the streets in Detroit, following a gathering of more than 200,000 in Los Angeles on Saturday.

More than a dozen immigrants and their advocates have been camped out on a week-long hunger strike at San Francisco’s federal building. “Symbolically they are putting their life on the line because immigrants do every day,” Robert Palmer of the Bay Area Immigrant Rights Coalition.

The U.S. public is divided between those who favor curbing illegal immigration with tighter border security and tougher enforcement and those who say it is essential to bring some of the estimated 12 million illegal workers out of the shadows with a comprehensive overhaul.

Immigrant groups, labor unions and some business groups are pushing for broad reform, including a guest worker program.

Outside the Capitol building on Monday, an estimated 1,500 protesters joined more than 100 clergy members.

In Oakland, Calif., Fernando Suarez del Solar, who says he immigrated legally in 1997, said the United States was happy to accept his son — killed in Iraq in 2003 — into the armed forces even though he had a residency permit, not citizenship.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Wilson in Washington, Adam Tanner in San Francisco, Bernie Woodall in Los Angeles, Jason Szep in Boston)

© 2006 Reuters