WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush’s effort to overhaul the country’s immigration laws got a last minute reprieve in the U.S. Senate on Tuesday, giving a boost to millions of immigrants who hope to legalize their status.
The Senate voted 64-35 to resume debate on the bill, which ties tough border security and workplace enforcement measures to a plan to legalize an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants and a create temporary worker program sought by business groups.
The legislation would be a significant victory for Bush in his second term in office but he has to overcome fierce opposition from many fellow Republicans who say it would do little to stem the flow of illegal immigration into the United States.
“The momentum against this bill is gathering all across the country and that is certainly taking hold within the Congress,” said Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina.
Immigrants who have been following the legislation closely expressed relief with the Senate decision to resume the debate, which Democratic Leader Harry Reid had vowed not to do unless Bush could provide Republican support to ensure a vote.
“Immigration reform is on life support. Now it gets at least one more breath of oxygen to move forward,” said Elias Bermudez, founder of Immigrants Without Borders in Phoenix.
Kelly Fincham, executive director of the Irish Lobby for Immigration Reform in New York, said she was “delighted,” adding: “We support the bill it in whatever shape or form it takes. ... We cannot wait for two years or four years for the perfect bill.”
The bill faces more hurdles in the Senate as leaders try to push it toward a final vote before Friday, when lawmakers are scheduled to begin a week-long break for the July 4 holiday.
Republican Senate opponents have said they are determined to kill the bill, which has already become an issue in next year’s presidential election campaign. The bill faces even stiffer Republican opposition in the U.S. House of Representatives.
Bush, trying to overcome that antagonism, has stepped up efforts to reach out to lawmakers and business and immigrant groups. The bill is a fragile compromise negotiated by a group of Democratic and Republican senators and the White House.
But in comments to business and immigrant groups on Tuesday, Bush raised a few eyebrows with a gaffe that suggested the bill he supports includes a form of amnesty.
“Amnesty means that you’ve got to pay a price for having been here illegally, and this bill does that,” Bush said.
The White House quickly took the rare step of issuing a statement saying that Bush “misspoke” and that his comment was “the exact opposite of the president’s long-held and often-stated position.”
The bill also faces opposition from some labor unions, who say its temporary worker program will create an underclass of cheap laborers. Many immigrant groups object to the bill’s limits on family migration.
But 32-year-old Mexican day laborer Carlos Ayala, sitting in the shade of a tree outside a Home Depot store in Phoenix, said he was delighted the bill was back in the Senate and appealed for legislators to support it.
“We are begging you to take us into account. We are human beings,” he said, glancing nervously at sheriff’s deputies who had pulled up at the informal work site, which is illegal under local bylaws. “We are here to work. There’s plenty to be done, but no-one is doing it.”
Supporters say that if the legislation stalls again after faltering earlier this month, Senate leaders are unlikely to attempt to revive it again before next year’s presidential election.
In an effort to help quell Republican opposition, Senate leaders have added to the legislation some $4.4 billion to pay for additional border security and enforcement measures.
additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Phoenix and Caren Bohan in Washington