Sen. John McCain insists that immigration legislation passed by the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday night does not grant amnesty to the estimated 11 million immigrants currently living in this country illegally.
"Amnesty is forgiveness," McCain, R-Ariz., told "Good Morning America." "This is payment of a fine. This is admission of guilt. … This is earned citizenship, that's what it is."
A bipartisan group of senators voted, 12-6, to approve the sweeping legislation that would allow immigrants who were in the United States before 2004 to become citizens if they pay $2,000 in fines, pass a background check, learn English, and work for six years. New immigrants -- "guest workers" -- would need temporary work visas, and would also be eligible for legal permanent residency after six years.
"There are 11 million people here illegally, many of them have been here for 40 or 50 years," McCain said. "The only way you solve the problem is to punish those who have come here illegally -- and it is a severe punishment -- but at the same time give them an opportunity for citizenship if they fulfill very serious obligations."
The bill also adds up to 14,000 new border patrol agents by 2011 to the current force of 11,300 and authorizes a "virtual wall" of unmanned vehicles, cameras and sensors to monitor the U.S.-Mexico border.
"Our first priority is strengthening our border and having border security," McCain said.
He acknowledged there were "sharp divisions" among the Republican Party regarding the legislation. The House also recently passed a much harsher bill that included criminal penalties for illegal migrants, verification of whether foreign employees were legally in the country, and building a fence along portions of the Mexican border.
But McCain is hoping President Bush's support of a "guest worker" program will encourage Congress to pass the Senate version.
"I think it's important that the president has spoken out recently on the importance of the 'guest worker' program," McCain said. "He understands the issue very, very well having been governor of Texas."
There have been mass demonstrations protesting legislation to crack down on illegal immigrants. Tens of thousands of students walked out of school in California and other states Monday, waving flags and chanting slogans in a second week of protests. In Washington, 100 demonstrators wore handcuffs at the Capitol. More than 500,000 people demonstrated in Los Angeles on Saturday, and others rallied in Phoenix and Milwaukee, Wis., last week.
"I'd like to point out a lot of these young people are children and grandchildren of people who came here illegally and who are citizens themselves and don't want to see their grandma sent back to Guadalajara, [Mexico]," McCain said.
If Congress grants status for illegal immigrants, it will be the most extensive revision of immigration law in 20 years, since a 1986 amnesty under President Reagan made about 2.7 million illegal migrants eligible for green cards.