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Senate Judiciary Committee drops felony provision of House illegal immigration bill

[JURIST] The US Senate Judiciary Committee [official website] on Monday softened HR 4437 [text, PDF; bill summary], the controversial immigration reform bill passed by the House [JURIST report] in December, by adopting an amendment by Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL) that would protect charitable organizations, churches and individuals providing aid to undocumented immigrants from all criminal charges. Under the House legislation, knowingly aiding an undocumented alien would be a felony.

This and other hard-line provisions adopted by the House, like making the "unlawful presence" of an alien in the US a felony in itself and mandating the construction of a fence along 700 of the 2,000 miles of US-Mexican border, have sparked national protest and debate, including a 500,000 person protest in Los Angeles [JURIST report] Saturday. Anticipating a congressional showdown, President Bush called for "civil" debate [JURIST report] on the issue last week. The full Senate has yet to vote on the revised legislation. AP has more.

7:15 PM ET - The Judiciary Committee has approved the full text of the amended draft immigration bill by a 12-6 vote, also rejecting a House provision that would have made "unlawful presence" of an undocumented alien in the US a felony, as opposed to the current misdemeanor. The approved bill additionally includes provisions for temporary guest workers [AP report; Kennedy press release]. It now advances to the Senate floor, although further changes are likely given that fewer than half the Republican members of the Committee voted in its favor.

7:30 PM ET - Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has praised the Committee's passage of the draft legislation and has called on Majority Leader Bill Frist to "immediately substitute this comprehensive approach for his wrongheaded bill as the full Senate begins debate tomorrow." Frist had said earlier he would bring his own stricter border security bill to the Senate floor [JURIST report] if the Judiciary Committee did not finish work on its draft by midnight Monday. Read Reid's press release.

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