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Immigration deal still faces difficulties

The Bush administration urged the Senate on Wednesday to approve controversial bipartisan immigration legislation, despite fresh criticism of presidential hopefuls and rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties. [!}
Jeff Sessions, Jim Bunning, Brian Bilbray
Sen. Jim Bunning, R-Ky., gestures during a Monday news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, to discuss immigration reform legislation. He's flanked by Sen. Jeff Session, R-Ala., left, and Rep. Brian Bilbray, R-Calif., right.Dennis Cook / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Bush administration urged the Senate on Wednesday to approve controversial bipartisan immigration legislation, despite fresh criticism of presidential hopefuls and rank-and-file lawmakers in both parties.

"The proposal offers a much-needed solution for our nation's broken immigration system. This proposal would deliver an immigration system that is secure, productive, orderly, and fair," said a statement from President Bush's budget office.

Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, a Democratic presidential candidate, denounced the measure's new point system for evaluating future immigrants, saying it gave too little weight to family ties.

The scheme "constitutes at minimum a radical experiment in social engineering and a departure from our tradition of having family and employers invite immigrants to come," Obama said, adding that he would work to phase it out.

Multiple amendments expected
Republicans worked to toughen the measure as the Senate continued a freewheeling debate on the bill - written in close consultation with the White House - which would give millions of immigrants quick legal status.

Democrats planned an attempt to slash the number of foreign workers who could come to the U.S. on temporary visas under the measure's new guest worker program.

"The bill anticipates letting way too many people into this country in a new, untested program," said Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., who offered an amendment to cap the temporary worker program at 200,000 a year.

Architects of the immigration deal said they would oppose the amendment, but did not consider it fatal to their compromise.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said he felt "sort of compelled" to reject the proposal given the pledge he and other key players have made to protect their agreement from modifications. But he added, "It ought to be considered."

The Senate also planned a vote on a proposal by Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, to allow visas to be revoked without court review.

"Current law allows aliens to run to the steps of our country's courthouses and take advantage of our system," Grassley said, warning that potential terrorists could stay in the country if his change was not adopted.

Also expected was an effort by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., to crack down on illegal border crossers with mandatory prison sentences, as leaders in both parties sought to alter elements of the broad agreement that are drawing criticism from their core supporters.

The measure would toughen border security and create a new workplace verification system to bar undocumented workers from getting jobs.

It would create a point system for future immigration applicants that would place less emphasis on family connections and more on education and skills in demand by U.S. businesses.

Republicans, responding to conservative criticism that the measure is too lenient, were trying to bolster its security provisions and make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get on a path to citizenship.

Democrats, hearing criticism from labor unions and immigrant groups on the guest worker program, were focusing on shrinking or otherwise altering it.

Lengthy debate planned
As currently crafted, the temporary worker plan would allow up to 600,000 workers - largely unskilled, nonagricultural laborers in areas such as construction, landscaping and meatpacking - to stay for up to three two-year stints, provided they left the United States for a year between each stay. A Democratic attempt to strip the program altogether failed Tuesday in the first major test of the fragile immigration compromise.

Democrats also are planning attempts to ensure that more visas would be available for family members of permanent residents and U.S. citizens.

The coalition of conservatives, liberals and centrists who worked out the deal are struggling to keep it intact.

Senate leaders in both parties, however, say it's important to have a wide-ranging debate on the measure. They have postponed a final vote until June.