WASHINGTON, Mar 28 (AP): The Senate Judiciary Committee approved election-year immigration legislation Monday that clears the way for millions of undocumented workers to seek US citizenship without first having to leave the country.
After days of street demonstrations that stretched from California to the grounds of the US Capitol, the committee also voted to strip out proposed criminal penalties for residents found to be in the United States illegally.
The panel's vote cleared the way for the full Senate to begin debate Tuesday on the emotional immigration issue.
"All Americans wanted fairness, and they got it this evening," said Sen. Edward M Kennedy, the Massachusetts Democrat who played a pivotal role in drafting the legislation.
Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, a Republican, voted for the bill but signaled that some of the provisions might be changed by the full Senate.
In general, the bill is designed to strengthen border patrol, create new opportunities for so-called guest workers and determine the legal future of the estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
At several critical points, committee Democrats were united while Republicans splintered. In general, Republican Sens. Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, Sam Brownback of Kansas and Mike DeWine of Ohio, who is seeking re-election this fall, sided with Democrats. That gave Democrats a majority that allowed them to shape the bill to their liking.
Meanwhile,tens of thousands of students walked out of school in California and other US states, waving flags and chanting slogans in a second week of protests against legislation to crack down on illegal immigrants.
In Washington, 100 demonstrators wore handcuffs at the Capitol on Monday to protest a bill that would make it a felony to be in this country illegally and would make it a crime to dispense aid to the nation's 11 million illegal immigrants.
Immigrant supporters also object to legislation that would impose new penalties on employers who hire illegal immigrants and would build fences along part of the U.S.-Mexican border. More than 500,000 people gathered in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday, and tens of thousands rallied in Phoenix and Milwaukee last week.
On Monday, more than 22,000 students marched out of Los Angeles-area schools, including the San Fernando Valley and the wealthy coastal enclave of Pacific Palisades in California, said Monica Carazo, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles school district. By midmorning, the protests had spread to downtown, where hundreds of students walked the streets and chanted. The boycott had the tacit approval of school officials in some of the heavily Hispanic downtown schools, where word was passed through hall posters and public address systems.
In some areas, teachers and administrators walked with students "as a safety measure," Carazo said.