(CNSNews.com) - Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on Wednesday promised to push comprehensive immigration reform through the U.S. Senate before the August recess, saying he hopes to get it passed much sooner.
Reid made the pledge at a news conference in the U.S. Capitol with Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) and other sponsors of legislation that would allow illegal immigrants residing in the United States a path to "earned citizenship," while ramping up enforcement of U.S. borders.
"This debate is about security, certainly border security, but it is also about our humanity and our decency," Kennedy said.
He said the Democrats' proposal does not amount to amnesty for lawbreakers - as critics charge - because it does not put illegal immigrants at the front of the line for citizenship, but instead would require work and sacrifice on their part.
"Those who distort and misrepresent this legislation do an enormous disservice to the American people," Kennedy said of the critics.
"We hope that the voices of hatred and bigotry will silence themselves for this debate so that America can truly be America, the land of opportunity and the great land of our immigrant heritage," he added.
According to a statement released by Kennedy's office, he hopes earned citizenship will help protect undocumented workers who are "easy targets for exploitation by unscrupulous employers." He also favors easing immigration policies to allow "the lawful entry of workers to meet the needs of our economy."
The statement also emphasized a need to better enforce immigration policy at the border. "We can't solve the problem of undocumented workers and adopt a successful temporary worker program unless we can control our borders," it said.
Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, said the group is dedicated to seeing immigration reform pass through Congress. "Passing comprehensive immigration reform will do something the American people want us to do," he said.
Kennedy's tough rhetoric on opponents of his plan didn't seem to faze them. Kurt Bardella, a spokesman for Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.), maintained that Kennedy's plan amounts to amnesty.
"Any policy that allows someone who has violated our laws and is in this country illegally to continue to be here in this country and enjoy benefits, I don't know how you could not call that amnesty," he told Cybercast News Service.
"The answer to illegal immigration is not rewarding illegal behavior," Bardella said.
Bilbray is the new chairman of the Congressional Immigration Reform Caucus, a group of anti-amnesty lawmakers formerly headed by Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).
Bardella said there is some common ground between comprehensive-reform Democrats and anti-amnesty Republicans, including increased enforcement along the border and against employers who violate the law, as well as the idea of a guest worker program.
"There is nothing wrong with a guest worker program ... where applicants would have to come from outside of the country, not people who are here illegally," he said.
If there is one thing all sides agree on, it's that the public wants something done about illegal immigration. Recent polling suggests Americans want immigration reform to include increased border security and a sensible way to deal with the millions of illegal immigrants currently living here.
A CNN/Gallup poll released this week found that 59 percent of Americans support allowing illegal immigrants to remain in the United States and become citizens if they meet "certain requirements over a period of time." Only 24 percent support deporting all illegal residents (up from 16 percent in a June 2006 poll).
In a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in November 2006, 63 percent of respondents supported punishing businesses that employ illegal immigrants. The same poll found 69 percent support for a "guest worker program" that would allow illegal immigrants to earn citizenship without having to leave the country.
Another poll, by CNN in October 2006, found that a majority of Americans support building a fence along the 700-mile border with Mexico.
Bardella said that rather than try to pass everything at once in a comprehensive reform package, Democrats in control of the House and Senate should first focus on issues where there is common ground.
"At least begin to make some progress on this issue because it has gone unaddressed for far too long," he urged.
Bardella promised that Republicans are "not going to support any policy that's going to induce the problem."
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