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Protests precede Senate immigration battle

President pushes 'comprehensive' bill ahead of Mexico visit

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Marchers in San Francisco protest a House immigration bill Monday.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Students and other immigration supporters rallied Tuesday against proposed restrictions they view as fundamentally un-American as debate swirled in Washington on how to overhaul immigration.

Student walkouts, marches and rallies took place in California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and other states. A group of high school students in Houston walked to City Hall in protest.

In Los Angeles, California, more than 8,000 students participated in walkouts Tuesday, prompting city government and education officials to announce that students who continue the walkouts will be cited for truancy beginning Wednesday.

The Senate, meanwhile, was expected to begin discussion Wednesday on an election-year bill that passed the Judiciary Committee on Monday. It was unclear, however, if the panel's bill has enough support to survive intact. (Watch the last time Congress tried to fix illegal immigration -- 2:02)

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, scheduled two weeks of debate on the issue and, having expressed frustration at the panel's pace, put forth his own proposal. (A look at the competing bills)

The committee's bill would create a guest-worker program and give illegal immigrants the chance to work toward legal status without first returning home.

Those provisions are not included in Frist's proposal, nor in an immigration bill approved by the House in December.

The House bill would fence off 700 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border and make crossing illegally a felony. It has drawn fierce opposition from Latino groups.

An estimated half-million people turned out to protest Saturday in Los Angeles, and smaller demonstrations have continued since then. One Spanish-language disc jockey in that city said he and his counterparts could take credit for the demonstrations. (Watch the lobbying campaign on immigrants' behalf -- 3:15)

"I've always been involved with the community, protesting laws that are very anti-immigrant because I was an illegal immigrant at one point in my life," Renan Coello said. (Full story)

GOP divided

Highlighting the divisions within GOP ranks over immigration, six of the committee's 10 Republicans voted against the bill, which passed 12-6 with support from the panel's eight Democrats.

Debate in the full Senate is set to begin as President Bush travels to Cancun, Mexico, for a summit with Mexican President Vicente Fox and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

A day before his departure, Bush told CNN en Espanol that the current immigration system "is inhumane, as far as I'm concerned, and it needs to be reformed."

He urged Congress to support a temporary guest-worker program.

"I have called upon both the House and the Senate to pass a comprehensive bill. And a comprehensive bill means to make sure you include a guest-worker program," he said.

He said his plan "includes not only border security, but also a temporary worker plan that recognizes there are hardworking people here doing jobs Americans won't do, and they ought to be here in such a way so they don't have to hide in the shadows of our society."

A guest-worker program has support in the business community, and Bush has successfully courted Latino backing during his presidential campaigns. But an outspoken segment of his conservative base demands restrictions on immigration.

Battle lines blurred

The biggest bone of contention in the bill passed by the Judiciary Committee is likely to be the legalization process for undocumented immigrants already in the country -- an idea denounced as "amnesty" by its critics and opposed by Bush.

"The bill that is coming out of the Judiciary Committee rewards illegal behavior, and I think if you reward illegal behavior, you'll get more illegal behavior," said Sen. George Allen, a Virginia Republican.

By a 12-5 margin, the committee accepted an amendment from Sen. Ted Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, that would create the legalization process.

In order to gain permanent residency under the Senate committee's bill, illegal immigrants would have to wait six years, pay $2,000 in fines and any back taxes, undergo a background check and learn English.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, expressed support Tuesday for the bill passed by the Judiciary Committee.

"I hope we can move forward with it and then pass it through the Senate," he told reporters. "I'm very pleased that the president has been very supportive of a humane approach to the issue and a viable guest-worker program."

On Tuesday, Bush played host to a bipartisan group of lawmakers on education and other topics. Kennedy -- typically a fierce critic of the president -- offered praise for Bush after what he called a brief discussion on immigration.

"The president likes the idea of a comprehensive approach," Kennedy said. "Although we still have not worked out the details of any kind of a joint position with the administration, I'm very hopeful that before the end of this debate, that we can all come together."

Further blurring the battle lines on the issue, the guest-worker proposal drew criticism Tuesday from the AFL-CIO, which praised other aspects of the committee's bill.

"Guest-workers programs are a bad idea and harm all workers," said a written statement from the labor group's president, John Sweeney. "They cast workers into a perennial second-class status, and unfairly put their fates into their employers' hands, creating a situation ripe for exploitation."

A statement from the Service Employees International Union, by contrast, praised the panel's legislation, urging the full Senate to "follow its lead."

CNN's Dana Bash and Peter Viles contributed to this report.

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