"It's a big day for us. We may not have a lot of big days, but this is a big day," Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant group, said after Monday's vote by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The legislation includes a provision that would permit illegal aliens currently in the country to apply for citizenship without first having to return home, a process that would take at least six years or more.
Illegals applying for citizenship would have to pay a fine, learn English, study American civics, demonstrate they had paid their taxes and take their place behind other applicants for citizenship, according to aides to Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who was instrumental in drafting the measure.
In general, the Judiciary Committee's bill is designed to strengthen enforcement of U.S. borders, regulate the flow of guest workers into the country, and determine the legal future of the estimated as many as 12 million immigrants living in the United States illegally.
CBS News correspondent Sharyl Attkisson reports that about 58 percent of those undocumented workers are employed and of that number, over half are paying federal taxes. But the revenue is not enough to offset the drain on the federal budget in the form of services including $2.5 billion in Medicaid costs, $2.2 billion for health care for the uninsured, and $1.9 billion for food stamps.
The bill would double the Border Patrol and authorizes a "virtual wall" of unmanned vehicles, cameras and sensors to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border. It also allows more visas for nurses and agriculture workers, and shelters humanitarian organizations from prosecution if they provide non-emergency assistance to illegal residents.
The Judiciary Committee also approved a five-year plan to provide visas for about 1.5 million agriculture workers and allow them to eventually seek legal residency.
Restaurant owners, agricultural groups, Democrats and others who had been pushing for a way for illegal immigrants to earn legal permanent residency - the first step to citizenship - also claimed victory.
There was no immediate reaction from the White House, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said he hoped President Bush, who advocates a so-called guest worker program which does not lead to long term legal residency or citizenship, will participate in efforts to fashion consensus legislation.
The next step is the full Senate, where Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee is negotiating with other senators on how to handle the committee's bill and his own proposal, which focuses more on punishing employers who hire undocumented workers.
"The situation along our Southern borders now ranks as a national security challenge, second only to the war on terror," Frist said Monday. "Every day thousands of people violate our frontiers."