(CNSNews.com) - The Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-6 Monday to pass an immigration and border security bill that would give 12 million illegal aliens a shot at U.S. citizenship without returning home first.
The bill faces an uphill battle in the Senate, where Majority Leader Bill Frist opposes it and may advance his own bill instead. Moreover, any bill allowing "earned legalization" will face strong opposition in the House of Representatives, which passed a bill in December making illegal immigration a felony.
A much more lenient bill emerged from the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday.
"The country has spoken, and today the Senate listened," Sen. Ted Kennedy said, referring to recent rallies across the United States in support of "earned legalization."
"No issue goes to the heart of who we are as Americans more than immigration," Kennedy said in a statement on his website.
The bill's most controversial measure, advanced by Kennedy and Sen. John McCain, includes a path to permanent residence and citizenship for people who came here illegally.
Millions of undocumented workers already in this country would be allowed to apply for temporary legal status for six years, but they would have to prove they're employed in the U.S.
They also would have to pay a $2,000 fine, undergo background and security checks, learn English and study American civics, pay back taxes, and then wait in line behind others who have applied for U.S. citizenship.
"It is not amnesty," Kennedy insisted. He said it will give immigrants "incentive to come forward and an opportunity to earn legal status."
Kennedy noted that under his bill, temporary workers will be able to bargain for wages and benefits just as U.S. workers do.
"If they don't like their jobs or the way they are treated, they will be permitted to change jobs. They will have the same right that American workers have to join or organize a union. Employers hiring temporary workers will be required to comply with all federal, state and local labor laws," Kennedy said on his website.
'Rewards for law-breakers'
Americans will view the Kennedy-McCain bill as amnesty, said Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who also sits on the Judiciary Committee.
Cornyn voted against the controversial guest worker provisions. "It will encourage further disrespect for our laws and will undercut our efforts to shore up homeland security," he said on his website.
Cornyn said immigration reform should improve U.S. security and border control; and identify undocumented immigrants and send them home, where they can apply for green cards through the proper channels. (Cornyn said the legislation he introduced with Sen. John Kyl achieves those objectives.)
"Adding border security measures to the McCain-Kennedy bill is not enough," Cornyn said. "Any proposal that allows every single illegal alien to remain in the U.S., pay a fine and obtain permanent residence status is not acceptable; it will simply encourage additional persons to evade our laws."
Cornyn said the 12 million illegal aliens already in this country must be addressed -- but "we have to do so without granting them amnesty."
Debate moves to full Senate
Sen. Bill Frist thanked the Judiciary Committee for its efforts, but he does not support the Kennedy-McCain "earned legalization" provisions, either.
Frist, as Senate majority leader, must now decide whether to let the Judiciary Committee bill advance in the full Senate -- or he may substitute his own reform bill, which would deport people who come to this country illegally.
Frist's bill also would crack down on human smugglers and make it easier for employers to confirm their workers' legal status.
His bill adds nearly 15,000 more border control officers over the next few years; requires new investments in unmanned aerial vehicles, cameras, and sensors; and calls for a barrier to built along the 1,951-mile U.S. border with Mexico.
"As many know, I oppose amnesty," Frist said. "With our economy at full employment, many who break our laws come to this country to do the work others won't so as to make a better life for themselves and their families. I honor that. America has always been the place where one can come to live out a dream of improvement and renewal. But while we welcome those who refresh and restore our American spirit, we have always done so within a framework of law."
Barring any procedural roadblocks erected by Democrats, Frist said the Senate will now discuss ways of balancing the rule of law with the problems of illegal immigration.
I'm hopeful that we can conduct this debate with civility and seriousness. I look forward to a thorough and full discussion over the coming days," he said.
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