Committee supports guest-worker immigrants

WASHINGTON _ The Senate Judiciary Committee, rushing to craft a comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, voted Monday to create a guest-worker program that would admit up to 400,000 low-skilled foreigners a year.

The workers could stay up to six years, then they’d have to return home unless they’d petitioned and been accepted for permanent residency and eventual U.S. citizenship. The panel approved those terms in an amendment sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass.

The committee also agreed to a pilot program that would allow 1.5 million undocumented immigrants over a five-year period to hold agricultural jobs under temporary visas. They, too, could apply for green cards to become permanent residents. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., said that program would ensure a source of legal workers for thousands of agricultural jobs now largely held by undocumented workers drawing low wages.

With Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., pressing to finish a bill before the full Senate plunges into the immigration debate Tuesday, the panel struggled to find middle ground between those calling for tougher enforcement and pro-immigrant groups who seek to protect the estimated 12 million aliens now in the United States illegally.

The panel approved an amendment by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., to shield church and charitable groups from criminal prosecution for providing aid to illegal immigrants, rejecting a more hard-line approach in a bill that the House of Representatives passed.

It also voted to nearly double the number of border patrol agents, calling for 12,000 more over the next five years, to bring the force to 23,000.

At one point, Specter unveiled a “potential, theoretical” compromise that offered a path to permanent residency for many – but not all – illegal aliens who met certain conditions. But he dropped it after finding few takers.

“It was worth the effort, but it’s not going to come to fruition,” Specter lamented, underscoring the immense challenge of trying to find accord on a volatile issue that’s dividing Congress and the American people.

Nearly 60 percent of U.S. citizens oppose allowing illegal aliens to apply for legal temporary-worker status, according an NBC News-Wall Journal Street poll. A Time survey found that three-fourths of Americans favor more border safeguards.

Continuing a chain of recent massive demonstrations across America, several thousand immigrants and activists gathered at the sunlit West Front of the Capitol to demand greater legal protections and denounce the House bill, which that threatens illegal immigrants with felony prison sentences.

Demonstrators joined hands to sing “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem from America’s civil rights protests, and brandished signs proclaiming “We are America” and “We are all immigrants.” Many were undocumented immigrants who spoke little or no English.

Specter’s committee had one day to finish its work under a deadline imposed by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., who planned to start Senate debate with his own measure – a tough border-enforcement plan – if Judiciary didn’t produce a more comprehensive proposal by the start of business Tuesday.