By Jennifer A. Dlouhy
Washington - Thousands of undocumented Irish workers and their supporters rallied here Wednesday in support of legislation that would give illegal immigrants a chance to come out of the shadows and eventually apply for U.S. citizenship.
The boisterous rally just steps away from the U.S. Capitol building came on the eve of a new congressional debate about revamping the nation's immigration system.
Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., and their allies in the House are putting the final touches on a sweeping immigration bill that would give millions of undocumented foreigners a chance to work in the United States legally.
The legislation, expected to be introduced in the next 10 days, would also create a new temporary visa program for foreigners to take jobs that U.S. employers say they cannot fill with Americans.
Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., said he's working to speed up a vote on that bill. While at the White House last week, Salazar said, he urged President Bush to push for faster action on an immigration law rewrite.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said Wednesday that he wants to have an immigration-reform bill passed by August.
Unlike the current employment visa system that favors highly skilled foreign professionals, the new program would be geared to lower- skilled workers such as janitors, hotel service employees and construction workers.
Speaking to a crowd of immigrants waving U.S. flags, singing Gaelic tunes and wearing shirts proclaiming "Legalize the Irish," Kennedy called the U.S. a "nation of immigrants" and noted his own Irish ancestry.
"This is really a fight in terms of the future ... of the soul of our country," Kennedy told the cheering crowd. "I can't wait for this battle. ... I didn't come here to lose."
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., also joined the rally to press for "comprehensive" reform that combines tough immigration law enforcement with a path to citizenship for most of the 12 million undocumented workers now living inside the U.S.
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