* Republicans criticize "amnesty" for 11 million
* Legislation is big test for Obama and Congress
* Vote on passage expected by Fourth of July holiday
By Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, June 7 The U.S. Senate on Friday
plunged into a spirited debate on overhauling the country's
immigration rules, with a verdict likely by the end of June on
legislation that could define President Barack Obama's final
years in office.
The "Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration
Modernization Act," a nearly 900-page reworking of the nation's
27-year-old immigration law, faces a tough fight in the
Democratic-held Senate and an even harder battle in the more
conservative House of Representatives later this year.
At its core is a plan to move 11 million people residing in
the United States illegally - many of whom came from Mexico
years ago - out of their illegal status and onto a 13-year path
At the same time, the legislation would spend around $6
billion more to strengthen border security and would change the
way temporary visas are issued, putting more emphasis on helping
U.S. farmers and high-tech industries get foreign labor.
"It is gratifying to see the momentum behind this package of
common-sense reforms, which will make our country safer and help
11 million undocumented immigrants get right with the law,"
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said.
While he promised to give senators ample opportunity to
change the bill - a few dozen amendments are expected - Reid
also warned that he would not allow opponents to debate the
measure endlessly. Work on the bill will be wrapped up before
the July 4 recess, Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said.
The bill's handling of the 11 million undocumented
residents is particularly problematic for many Senate
Republicans who see it as rewarding people who broke the law by
entering the United States illegally while others waited in
foreign lands for their applications to be processed.
"We can't reject a dutiful, good person to America and then
turn around and allow someone else who came in illegally to
benefit from breaking our laws to the disadvantage of the good
person," said Republican Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama.
Sessions, who has been a leading voice against the
legislation, added: "It will definitely give amnesty today" to
the 11 million.
Sessions and other senators are expected to push for greater
border security efforts and are also likely to try to eliminate
the pathway to citizenship for the 11 million.
Nevertheless, backers of the bill were confident that it
will pass within a few weeks, putting the onus on the
Republican-controlled House to tackle the immigration overhaul,
a top issue to Hispanic voters who mainly backed Obama in last
Republican Senator John McCain, a member of the "Gang of
Eight" that wrote the legislation, said he remains optimistic
that there are at least 60 votes in the 100-member chamber to
pass the bill, the number needed to clear any procedural
"We've got over 60 votes. I'm confident of that," McCain
He said he believed that by the time the amendment process
ends, backers will have 70 votes on passage, the number
supporters are aiming for to put pressure on the House to act.
"There are some real concerns about border security that we
have to work through, but I'm confident that we will be able to
do so," McCain said.
But Republican Senator Mike Lee cited the emerging scandal
involving the U.S. spy agency's domestic surveillance efforts to
oppose the immigration bill, which he said would authorize
another excessive federal effort.
"Did the American people have any idea that the (2001)
PATRIOT Act would empower the National Security Agency to spy on
all Americans through their cell phones and computers?," Lee, of
"What makes any of us - least of all any conservative -
believe this immigration bill is going to work out any better?"
Lee added, calling for an incremental rather than comprehensive
approach to immigration reform.
The legislation represents a big test for the highly
polarized and unpopular Congress, which has been unable to
handle even basic chores, like agreeing to a federal budget.
It may be an even bigger test for Obama, who earlier this
year failed to get the Senate to approve another major
legislative objective, a crackdown on gun violence.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)