The U.S. Senate Wednesday continued work on an immigration reform bill, voting to bar illegal immigrants with criminal records from becoming U.S. citizens and build a fence along a portion of the U.S. border with Mexico.
Senators voted unanimously (99 to 0) to block illegal immigrants convicted of crimes from becoming legal residents or U.S. citizens.
Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican, is a key sponsor of the measure:
"I think it reflects the will of the American people that however we treat people who are here illegally, there are some limits," said Jon Kyl. "People who have demonstrated an unwillingness to comply with the law, when they have been ordered to leave the country and have not done so, or when they have been convicted of serious crimes, it is demonstrated that those people will not be able to participate in the program, that a convicted felon will not be allowed to become a citizen of the United States."
The proposal would apply to illegal immigrants convicted of a felony or three misdemeanor crimes. It would grant waivers in some instances to illegal immigrants who ignore deportation orders - if for example, their departure would cause hardship to family members who are in the United States legally.
Senators also voted (83 to 16) to build nearly 600 kilometers of fencing along the border with Mexico. Senator Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, sponsored the measure.
"Good fences make good neighbors," said Senator Sessions.
Passage of the amendment is seen as a victory for Republican conservatives who would like to see the bill emphasize border security.
Many conservatives oppose the bill's temporary guest worker provision, which would offer illegal immigrants a path to eventual U.S. citizenship if they meet a series of conditions. They sought unsuccessfully to strip the provision from the legislation.
Republican Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia says the guest worker proposal represents amnesty.
"There is one basic concept in the underlying bill that is baffling to me," said Saxby Chambliss. "And that is, why do we have to connect a pathway to citizenship for folks who are here illegally to meaningful immigration reform?"
President Bush supports the guest worker provision, and denies that it rewards those who entered the United States illegally. Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican, agrees.
"To call the process that we require under this legislation amnesty frankly distorts the debate and is really an unfair interpretation of it," he said.
The Senate could vote on the bill as early as next week. The legislation will have to be reconciled with a House-passed measure that does not contain the guest worker provision.
President Bush sent his top adviser, Karl Rove, to meet with House Republicans, who make up the chamber's majority and who are strongly opposed to granting legal status or citizenship to illegal immigrants. Lawmakers who emerged from the meeting are quoted as saying the discussion failed to persuade them to drop their opposition to the guest worker proposal.
Earlier in the day, another administration official was on Capitol Hill to seek support for an immigration-related initiative announced by President Bush Monday night: a plan to deploy up to six-thousand National Guard troops along the U.S. border with Mexico.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld told the Senate Appropriations Committee the proposal would not burden the National Guard, which some lawmakers argue is already stretched thin by deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The up to 6,000 National Guard men and women proposed for this effort represent less than two percent of the total National Guard force of some 400-plus thousand," said Donald Rumsfeld. "For the most part, they will be deployed during their two or three week active duty for training period. As such, this will not only not adversely affect America's ability to conduct the war on terror or respond to other domestic emergencies, it will actually provide useful real-life training for the members of the National Guard."
The testimony and the developments on immigration reform legislation came as thousands of demonstrators marched within view of the U.S. Capitol in support of immigrant rights.