Republican Party divided by bitter immigration debate

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The US Senate yesterday passed a sweeping immigration reform bill yesterday, setting up a showdown with the House of Representatives and widening a split in the ranks of the Republican Party.

The measure, approved by a 62-36 margin with widespread bipartisan support, not only toughen border controls but creates a mechanism leading to citizenship for most illegal immigrants. It contrasts sharply with a far tougher bill to seal the southern US border and make entering the country illegally a serious crime.

Cross-party support for the Senate scheme ranges from John McCain, the front-runner for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination, and Edward Kennedy, the Democrats' most prominent liberal.

It is also strongly supported by President Bush who has repeatedly urged a compromise combining reinforced border controls - including the dispatch of 6,000 National Guardsmen and construction of a 370-mile fence - with a guest worker scheme and a path towards citizenship for the 10 million illegals.

But conservative Republicans vow they will never accept the last provision, which they insist is an "amnesty" rewarding people who have broken the law.

The stage is thus set for a collision between the two wings of the party. The divisions could not have emerged at a worse time, ahead of mid-term elections where the Republicans are already facing a battering.

The bill offers eventual citizenship to the estimated seven million illegal immigrants who have been in the US for five years. First however they would have to pass a security check, and pay a fine and back taxes. Critics say the scheme not only amounts to an amnesty, but would overwhelm an already overstretched US immigration service.