Washington : A plan hailed last month as a historic immigration reform proposal hit a major road bump Thursday when the US Senate refused to close off debate, defying plans by the Democratic leadership.
Many Democrats joined in the 63-33 vote to allow more debate and amendment proposals to the proposed measure, setting the scene for another procedural vote later Thursday.
The vote was a setback for the fragile compromise bill, hammered out between US President George W. Bush's White House and leading Democrats in Congress.
The bill has been at the top of Bush's domestic agenda for years, but he was unable to convince fellow Republicans who controlled Congress until January to back his liberal approach to reform.
The bill would overhaul immigration laws, providing for an expanded "guest worker" programme and a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million illegal migrants in the US.
The bill has drawn criticism from some quarters for favouring immigrants with high job and education skills and for its curtailment of the popular temporary H1B visa programme that has allowed foreigners with strong technical skills to obtain Green Cards.
"Rather than allowing the market and American employers to determine the numbers and the types of workers that meet the employer's specific requirements, the bill provides for (a) … dictated point system for family-based immigration," said the United States India Political Action Committee (USINPAC) in a recent statement.
The bill would "devastate local economies driven by the tech sector", USINPAC said.
Employers of low-skilled labour, such as farmers and branches of the service industry, are also unhappy because it limits the flow of labour to help them run their businesses.
The two sides had already agreed to double the number of border guards, boost enforcement against employers that hire illegal workers and crack down on smugglers – a gesture to conservative Republicans and Democrats whose main priority is making the border leak-proof.
Once the enforcement goals are met, the plan would create a temporary worker programme to reduce the pressure on US borders and allow workers to come to the US "for a short period of time" to fill jobs Americans don't want, Bush said.
Illegal immigrants would have to pay a fine, learn English, pay US taxes and pass a background check before they can be considered for legal status.
In applying for a work permit and citizenship, they would have to get in line behind all of those who have followed the law. Most future immigration will be based on family ties.
Bush has been stumping for the bill in recent weeks, with frequent references to bringing illegal immigrants "out of the shadows without amnesty and without animosity".