As students poured onto the streets of Los Angeles and immigrants’ activists from California to Kentucky amassed on the Capitol steps, a key Senate panel on Monday approved legislation opening the door for millions of illegal immigrants to seek U.S. citizenship. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed the bill 12-6, setting the stage for the next immigration showdown this week on the Senate floor. Passage came after an intense, daylong debate in which lawmakers rejected some of the get-tough measures aimed at illegal immigrants in favor of one that would allow up to 400,000 low-skilled foreigners into the country annually and let them stay in the U.S. while applying for green cards. Lawmakers also approved an amendment by Sen. Dianne Feinstein permitting as many as 1.5 million illegal farmworkers to obtain legal permanent residency over five years and, ultimately, citizenship. “This bill is a lot more realistic and sensible than the bill the House passed,” said Rep. Howard Berman, D-Van Nuys. “The Senate floor is the next key test.” Opponents of illegal immigration, meanwhile, blasted the bill, saying it amounted to amnesty. “No plan with amnesty and a massive increase in foreign workers will pass the House,” vowed Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo. “Americans want enforcement first.” In passing a bill, the committee met a deadline set by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn. Frist had threatened to bring up legislation that dealt only with border enforcement and sidestepped the issue of America’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants if Chairman Arlen Specter had not completed a measure by midnight Monday. The main struggle Monday focused on finding common ground between competing guest worker programs. Ultimately, Republicans splintered and four supported a measure by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that would allow illegal immigrants to apply for temporary status for six years and eventually citizenship. Lawmakers rejected a countermeasure by Sen. John Kyle, R-Ariz., and John Cornyn, R-Texas, that would have required undocumented immigrants to leave the country before applying for any guest worker program. “The country has spoken, and today the Senate listened,” Kennedy said. While Kennedy maintained illegal immigrants would have to go to the “back of the line” to wait for temporary or permanent legal status, Kyle called that description disingenuous. Whether Frist intends to proceed with his bill remains unclear. “We voted out a bill. I think that’s a good day’s work,” Specter said. “I’m optimistic we’ll be able to work it through.” Feinstein’s farmworker measure, which stems from a bill called AgJobs that Berman authored in the House, would allow workers to apply for a “blue card” if they can demonstrate they worked in agriculture for at least 150 days between 2003 and 2005. That person could then apply to become a legal permanent resident if they can prove they worked in agriculture an additional 150 days per year for three years, or 100 days per year for five years. “It will provide the agriculture industry with a legal workforce and offer agriculture workers a path to citizenship,” said Feinstein, whose amendment passed 11-5. The committee also passed Feinstein amendments adding border agents and criminalizing border tunnels. Sparked by the discovery earlier this year of a tunnel running from San Diego to Tijuana, the bill would impose a 20-year prison sentence for anyone who builds such a tunnel, and 10 years imprisonment for anyone who recklessly allows their property to be used for that purpose. Meanwhile, outside the Capitol, hundreds of clergy and immigrant activists from across the country gathered to protest the House bill, which passed in December and makes being an illegal immigrant a felony offense. Any bill that passes the Senate will have to be reconciled with that measure. “I think it’s unfair,” said Christina Estrada, 18, of El Monte, rallying with other students from Georgetown University. Illegal immigrants, she said, “are the ones that fuel the economy further.” Angie Bonilla, 18, of Rialto, also a Georgetown University student, said her parents came to the United States illegally from El Salvador. While they now are American citizens, she said, many of their friends and relatives remain illegal immigrants. “I think they should be given the right to live and work here,” she said. “I don’t think they should be threatened or have to live here without any rights.” As activists sang, waved flags and chanted “We are America,” clergy members slapped handcuffs on themselves to protest the House bill. Father Marco Ortiz of Divine Savior Church in Cypress Park said he felt it was important to be in Washington for the debate. He said he wants to see Congress pass something “realistic” that, he said, “would help a group of people who are waiting for a chance to make a difference in this country and never meant to be a problem.” [email protected] (202) 662-8731 160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set!