Senate mulls immigrant 'amnesty'

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The Independent US

A bitterly divided US Senate has begun debating a sweeping and relatively generous new bill to overhaul immigration laws - including a process whereby the estimated 11 million people living in America illegally can become citizens.

The package endorsed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday broadly backs the conciliatory approach of President Bush, which has been fiercely criticised by many of his own Republicans.

The move follows a weekend of huge demonstrations by supporters of immigrants' rights, most notably in Los Angeles where at least 500,00 people turned out. The new proposals will also feature at this week's summit in Cancun of the US, Mexico and Canada.

The measure is a mixture of carrots and sticks - the latter centred on a beefed-up security operation along the Mexican border.

Far more striking, however, is the effort to sort out the status of the large numbers of illegal immigrants, without whose work - usually in manual jobs and for wages that no American would accept - the national economy might grind to a standstill. Extra visas would be allocated for nurses, and for 1.5 million more agriculture workers.

But the key provision is the process that would permit illegal immigrants to seek citizenship without having to return to their home country first. Critics say that it is tantamount to an amnesty.