WASHINGTON (CBS/AP)- Immigrant rights supporters claimed their first major victory since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, as a bipartisan group of senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee voted 12-6 to approve legislation that would give millions of illegal aliens a chance at citizenship.
"It's a big day for us. We may not have a lot of big days, but this is a big day," Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant group, said after Monday's vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The legislation includes a provision that would permit illegal aliens currently in the country to apply for citizenship without first having to return home, a process that would take at least six years or more.
Illegals applying for citizenship would have to pay a fine, learn English, study American civics, demonstrate they had paid their taxes and take their place behind other applicants for citizenship, according to aides to Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was instrumental in drafting the measure.
In general, the Judiciary Committee's bill is designed to strengthen enforcement of U.S. borders, regulate the flow of guest workers into the country, and determine the legal future of the estimated as many as 12 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports that about 58 percent of those illegal workers are employed and of that number, over half are paying federal taxes. But the revenue is not enough to offset the drain on the federal budget in the form of services including $2.5 billion in Medicaid costs, $2.2 billion for health care for the uninsured, and $1.9 billion for food stamps.
The bill would double the Border Patrol and authorizes a "virtual wall" of unmanned vehicles, cameras and sensors to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border. It also allows more visas for nurses and agriculture workers, and shelters humanitarian organizations from prosecution if they provide non-emergency assistance to illegal residents.
The Judiciary Committee also approved a five-year plan to provide visas for about 1.5 million agriculture workers and allow them to eventually seek legal residency.
Restaurant owners, agricultural groups, Democrats and others who had been pushing for a way for illegal immigrants to earn legal permanent residency - the first step to citizenship - also claimed victory.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said he hoped President Bush, who advocates a so-called guest worker program which does not lead to long-term legal residency or citizenship, will participate in efforts to fashion consensus legislation.
The next step is the full Senate, where Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is negotiating with other senators on how to handle the committee's bill and his own proposal, which focuses more on punishing employers who hire undocumented workers.
"The situation along our Southern borders now ranks as a national security challenge, second only to the war on terror," Frist said Monday. "Every day thousands of people violate our frontiers."
Frist said the Senate will begin a debate on immigration later this week with the aim of passing a bill by April 7. The debate will give Americans a glimpse of two candidates for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008: Frist and Sen. John McCain of Arizona, an architect of the bill approved by the Judiciary Committee.
McCain said the turnouts in the hundreds of thousands - particularly among Hispanics - at rallies in Los Angeles, Chicago and Washington helped galvanize support for the bill. Protests continued in numerous cities around the nation Monday, including demonstrations by high school students in Texas, Washington State and California.
Recent polls show that about six in 10 Americans oppose letting illegal immigrants remain in the country and apply for citizenship and three of every four do not believe the government is doing enough to stem the continuing tide of new arrivals.
"For years, the government has turned a blind eye to illegal aliens who break into this country," said Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who voted for H.R. 4437, a House bill passed in December that would make being an illegal alien, or helping someone to be one, a felony. The bill has generated alarm and outrage among supporters of reforms to help illegal aliens and was specifically targeted by the protesters at the dozens of rallies held in cities around the nation over the past few days.
Reacting to the protests, the primary sponsor of HR 4437, GOP Rep. James Sensenbrenner, issued a statement Monday saying the purpose of the bill is to crack down on human smugglers. Sensenbrenner also said that while he favors greater penalties for illegal immigration, it was Democrats who blocked his effort to make the crime of being an illegal alien a misdemeanor and not a felony.
Soon after assuming the presidency, President Bush called for measures to provide businesses with a reliable immigrant work force. But after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, he put aside negotiations with Mexico on a guest worker program. Mexican President Vicente Fox, who is to meet with President Bush this week in Cancun, had hoped his friendship with the former Texas governor would lead to legal status for Mexicans working illegally in the U.S.
Any bill produced by the Senate would have to be reconciled with the House measure. Despite President Bush's support for letting illegal immigrants with jobs avoid deportation, many Republicans vow to prevent what they say amounts to amnesty from becoming law.
"I will oppose amnesty at all stages," said Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, who was on the losing side of Monday's vote by the Judiciary Committee. He said Congress "made a mistake in 1986" by granting amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants "and now we have 12 million."