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US Senate Votes for Immigration Reform Bill

The U.S. Senate has approved (by a 62 to 36 vote) sweeping immigration reform legislation that strengthens border security and establishes a guest worker program for the millions of illegal immigrants in the United States. But the fate of the measure remains unclear, as it must be reconciled with a vastly different bill passed by the House of Representatives.

The Senate bill calls for tougher border security enforcement to stem the flow of illegal immigrants into the United States through such proposals as hiring of thousands of new border patrol agents and the construction of a 600-kilometer fence along part of the U.S.-Mexican border.

The measure also contains provisions to deal with the 11 to 12 million undocumented workers already in the country by setting up a guest worker program and offering many of them a path to U.S. citizenship if they meet several conditions -- including paying a fine and learning English.

It also would establish a new system to verify the legal status of workers and punish employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

Senator Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, helped draft the legislation: "This is the most far-reaching immigration reform in our history. It is a comprehensive and realistic attempt to solve the real-world problems that have festered for too long in our broken immigration system. It strengthens our security and reflects our humanity," he said.

But passage of the bill came despite opposition from conservative Republicans who say the provision offering illegal immigrants an opportunity to pursue U.S. citizenship amounts to amnesty.

Senator Jeff Sessions is an Alabama Republican: "We should not give those who violate our laws to get here every single right that we give to people who wait in line and come lawfully. That is a very important moral and legal principle," he said.

Many in the Republican majority in the House of Representatives agree, and are vowing to fight the legislation from becoming law.

Supporters of the Senate bill are concerned about its fate, as it must be reconciled with much tougher House-passed legislation, which does not include the guest worker program, but does contain a provision that would designate illegal immigrants felons.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada is the Senate's top Democrat, "For all the good work we have done here in the past two weeks, it can be eliminated in a heartbeat when we go to conference with the House," he said.

But that is exactly what Republican conservatives, including Reid's colleague from Nevada, Senator John Ensign, are hoping for. "I am hopeful that the House will save us from this bill," he said.

One key supporter of the Senate bill, Senator John McCain of Arizona -- a state which borders Mexico - expressed hope that a compromise can be reached between the House and Senate versions that will be compassionate toward the millions of undocumented workers in the country. "These people have come for the very same reason immigrants have always come to America: they came to grasp the lowest rung of the ladder and they intend to rise. Let them rise, let them rise. We will be better for it. For America, blessed, bountiful, beautiful America, is still land of hope and opportunity, the land of immigrants' dreams. Long may she remain so," he said.

McCain is one of several Senate Republicans reaching out to their House colleagues in search of a compromise.

McCain notes that Congressman Mike Pence, an Indiana Republican and leader of the conservative caucus in the House, has proposed a bill that would allow illegal immigrants to become guest workers, although they would not be allowed to become permanent residents or citizens.

President Bush, who also supports the guest worker proposal, has called on Congress to include such a provision in immigration reform legislation.