<!--:es-->Immigration bill moves forward<!--:-->

Immigration bill moves forward

WASHINGTON – The U.S. Senate approved a compromise that would bar illegal immigrants with criminal records from becoming legal residents or U.S. citizens. The 99-0 vote on the amendment blocking felons and people with three misdemeanor convictions was a key hurdle for the bipartisan immigration bill, which would tighten border security while creating a guest worker program and a path toward citizenship for many of the nation’s estimated 11 million to 12 million illegal immigrants.

The immigration bill nearly died in the Senate last month but partly because of prodding by President George W. Bush, the Senate has worked out some compromises and is increasingly likely to pass the measure next week.But it still faces very tough negotiations with the U.S. House of Representatives, which approved a much tougher bill that cracks down on illegals and does not give them options for becoming legal.

Bush made a rare nationally televised speech on immigration on Monday backing the thrust of the Senate bill and his top political aide Karl Rove came to the Capitol on Wednesday to discuss the issue with House Republicans.

“I’d seen some talk that maybe this was going to be a highly contentious meeting, the readout I get is that it was not at all, it was respectful, people were obviously having exchanges of views on things,” White House spokesman Tony Snow said of Rove’s talks. “Do not assume that all positions are absolutely chiseled in stone.”

The issue is extremely sensitive in a congressional election year when Republicans face many challenges to maintaining their control of the House and Senate.

Conservatives oppose any hint of an amnesty for illegals, while many business groups do want a pool of foreign workers and Hispanic groups are flexing political muscle demanding legalization. Another large rally and march to the Capitol was planned for Wednesday afternoon.

An earlier version of the amendment on criminals by Republicans Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona and John Cornyn of Texas was seen as a “poison pill” that could have sunk the whole bill.

The compromise version kept the ban on felons and people with three misdemeanor convictions. To win backing, it granted waivers under some circumstances for illegal immigrants who had ignored deportation orders. For instance, they would be allowed to stay in the United States if their departure would cause “extreme hardship” to family members who are in the country legally.

“This amendment simply closes a loophole and strengthens the bill, and it will help keep Americans safe by ensuring that no felons or repeat criminal offenders will receive amnesty or citizenship,” Cornyn said.

The Senate was to consider several other amendments, including some that could shape the temporary or guest worker program.