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U.S. senators battle for immigration pact

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Senate leaders battled to hold together a fragile compromise on an overhaul of the immigration system on Thursday as President George W. Bush, in an impassioned plea for the bill, insisted 12 million people could not be sent home.

The measure, which would tie tough border security and workplace enforcement measures to a guest-worker program and a plan to legalize the millions of illegal immigrants, is under attack from the right and left.

Conservatives argue it will give amnesty to people who broke U.S. laws, while unions say the temporary worker program will create an underclass of cheap labourers.

Bush defended the bill as a comprehensive approach that will fix what most Americans believe is a broken immigration system through which millions of illegal immigrants have entered the United States.

“If anybody advocates trying to dig out 12 million people who have been in our society for awhile, you know, it’s sending a signal to the American people that’s just not real,” Bush said at a news conference. “I mean, it is -- it’s an impractical solution.”

A New York Times/CBS News poll released on Thursday showed a large majority of Americans in favour of changing immigration laws to let illegal immigrants gain legal status and to create a guest-worker program.

The major provisions in the bill attracted broad support from Democrats, Republicans and independents alike, according to the telephone poll of 1,125 adults conducted from Friday to Wednesday.


So far, the handful of leading senators who helped broker the compromise with the White House have fended off amendments that would have tattered the delicate compromise. The bill survived a cliff-hanger vote on Thursday on an amendment by Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, that would have ended the temporary worker program after five years.

The Senate rejected the amendment by one vote after a last-minute switch by Hawaii Democratic Senator Daniel Akaka at the urging of Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat who is working to keep the compromise intact.

“At the end of this week, we are still together and we’re moving forward to accomplish what’s going to be tough and fair and practical, realistic immigration reform for our country,” said Senator Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat.

The group also beat back an effort to eliminate a crucial part of the bill that would legalize millions of illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States before January 2007.

The Senate voted 66-29 against the amendment offered by Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter.

Also soundly rejected was an early effort to eliminate the proposed guest worker program that U.S. businesses say they need to fill jobs Americans do not want or lack the skills to perform.

On Wednesday, the Senate agreed to dramatically cut the size of the program. It was a significant, but not fatal change to the bill, lawmakers said.

As written, the bill would have allowed at least 400,000, and up to 600,000 temporary workers a year. But the Senate voted overwhelmingly to slice the number to 200,000.

Senator Jon Kyl, an Arizona Republican who worked with Kennedy to negotiate the compromise, said he would push to allow more temporary workers into the United States if they were needed.

Also on Thursday, the Senate voted to raise the fees businesses pay for visas for highly skilled technology and science workers to $5,000 from $1,500. The money would be used to finance a scholarship program.

The Senate will complete its consideration of the bill after lawmakers return from a weeklong break. The U.S. House of Representatives is expected to take up its own version perhaps as early as July.