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Bush immigration plan gets off to a slow start

Washington, May 22 (IANS) President George Bush's controversial plan to give millions of unlawful immigrants, including some 300,000 Indians, legal status in the United States cleared its first hurdle with the Senate taking up the issue for debate amid widespread opposition.

The Senate voted 69-23 Monday to move forward with debate on the plan, which also tightens border security and workplace enforcement measures, after leaders of Bush's minority Republicans and majority Democrats agreed to wait until June to take final action.

The bipartisan plan hammered out with White House support has drawn criticism from across the political spectrum, prompting Senate leaders not to complete it by the weekend before the Congress takes a week-long break as hoped for earlier.

"It would be to the best interests of the Senate ... that we not try to finish this bill this week," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, as the chamber began debate on the volatile issue. "I think we could, but I'm afraid the conclusion wouldn't be anything that anyone wanted."

Lawmakers on both sides of the political divide are seeking dozens of modifications to the plan's key elements.

Republicans want to make the bill tougher on the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants. Democrats want to change a new temporary worker programme and reorder priorities in a merit-based system for future immigration that weights employability over family ties.

The two key architects of the deal, Democrat Edward M. Kennedy and Republican Jon Kyl, are seeking to protect what they are calling their "grand bargain" from "deal-breaker" changes.

Among the first changes to be debated is a proposal by Democrat Jeff Bingaman to shrink the temporary worker programme from the envisaged at least 400,000 guest worker visas annually.

Critics also call it impractical and unfair to immigrants, because it would allow them to stay only temporarily in the US without guaranteeing them a chance to gain legal status.

"We must not create a law that guarantees a permanent underclass, people who are here to work in low-wage, low-skilled jobs but do not have the chance to put down roots or benefit from the opportunities of American citizenship," Reid said.

Reid said he had reservations about the measure, but called it a "starting point". On the other hand, Conservatives criticised the proposal's quick granting of legal status to millions of unlawful immigrants.

Republican Jeff Sessions said the measure's so-called "point system" doesn't do enough to guarantee that future immigration will serve the country's economic needs.

Bush is still hoping to sign the bill by summer's end, said Tony Fratto, a presidential spokesperson, as the White House began active lobbying to drum up support for the measure, particularly among conservative Republicans who see it as an amnesty that rewards illegal immigrants who broke US laws.

"This bill is compromising to the country's economy, national security and very foundation of a democracy rooted in the rule of law," said Republican Jim Bunning. "Each low-skilled immigrant household that gets amnesty costs the American taxpayers nearly $20,000 each year if we consider only the illegal aliens given amnesty," he said.

"This is a very high priority for the president," Fratto told reporters in Crawford, Texas. "We know that this is an emotional issue for members on both sides of political parties and both sides of the ideological spectrum, but we hope that we can find common ground."

Meanwhile, opposition to the compromise plan grew on Monday with labour unions and Hispanic groups saying the deal was bad for workers, families and employers.

The League of United Latin American Citizens, one of the country's oldest and largest Hispanic groups, said it opposed the plan's limits on family-based immigration. A labour union and another Hispanic group said they would work to change the proposed law as it moves through Congress.

"This bill will dehumanise workers, short-change employers and lead to widespread undocumented immigration as many workers inevitably overstay their visas rather than return home," the group's president, Rosa Rosales stated.

Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, said requiring immigrants to return home to apply for permanent residence was unworkable. The union, which has about 1.8 million members, also wants more labour protections for guest workers and a path to citizenship.

Indo-Asian News Service

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