US Senate Panel Approves Controversial Immigration Legislation

The U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee has approved a sweeping immigration reform bill that clears the way for millions of undocumented workers to seek U.S. citizenship.

The bill approved Monday clears the way for the full Senate to begin debate on the controversial issue Tuesday. Lawmakers are divided over the issue, with some calling the temporary worker program approved by the Senate panel a form of amnesty.

In a speech Monday, President Bush said he would not support any plan that gives amnesty to immigrants who have been working in the country illegally. He called, however, for a temporary worker program that would allow foreign workers to enter the country legally for a limited period of time.

In Washington, hundreds of protesters demonstrated near the U.S. Capitol building. Demonstrations were also held in several other cities, including a walkout by thousands of students in Los Angeles.

The issue is looming as a key issue in this year's congressional elections, in which Republicans are seeking to hold onto their majorities in both houses of Congress.

A bill passed by the Republican-dominated House in December would impose new penalties on employers who hire illegal aliens as well as build a fence along one-third of the U.S-Mexican border.

Under that measure, churches and other social welfare groups would have to ask immigrants for legal documentation before giving them aid.

That provision has been denounced as punitive and unjust by Roman Catholic and other religious leaders. Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, who opposes the legislation, says he will tell priests to defy the measure if it becomes law.