* Judiciary Committee opens amendment marathon
* Republicans express skepticism and promise long process
* House negotiators still face unresolved issues (New throughout, adds details on amendments and voting)
By Richard Cowan and Thomas Ferraro
WASHINGTON, May 9 (Reuters) - A landmark bill backed by U.S. President Barack Obama to overhaul the nation's immigration system survived unscathed on Thursday during the first day of consideration by a divided Senate Judiciary Committee.
On bipartisan votes, the panel rejected conservatives' attempts to thwart implementation of a centerpiece of the bill - a pathway to U.S. citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.
By day's end leading Democratic and Republican senators said the committee had improved the bill.
The panel, composed of 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, accepted 21 relatively modest amendments that focus largely on border security and increased congressional oversight. All but one amendment were agreed to on bipartisan votes.
Eleven other amendments were rejected or withdrawn, many of them Republican bids to bolster border security in ways that went far beyond the steps spelled out in the bill, while also delaying or even killing proposals to legalize undocumented immigrants.
"It is a better bill now than it was this morning," said Republican Senator Jeff Flake of Arizona, a member of the committee and the Gang of Eight senators who wrote the measure.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer of New York, another committee and Gang of Eight member agreed, hailing the amendments as "good-faith improvements...that make our proposal stronger."
As currently written, the bill would boost funding for border security, revamp visa programs to allow for more high- and low-skilled workers and chart a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.
The committee is expected to complete work on the bill by the end of this month, sending it to the full Senate to face a tougher test. That debate could extend through June or longer.
Backers will need the support of at least 60 of the chamber's 100 members to clear what are expected to be Republican-led procedural roadblocks.
Although the Republican Party has urged its members to embrace comprehensive immigration reform as a way to reach out to the growing number of Hispanic voters, a number of Republicans have resisted.
This, despite Hispanics rebuking Republican candidates in last November's elections, including presidential nominee Mitt Romney, with 71 percent of them voting to re-elect Obama.
Many Republicans favor an incremental approach, one that would focus more on strengthening the 1,969-mile (3,170-km) U.S.-Mexican border. They want to do so without a pathway to citizenship, which critics denounce as "amnesty", for those who entered the United States illegally or overstayed visas.
Throughout the day, two Republican co-sponsors of the bill, Flake and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, joined with Democrats on critical issues to protect the legalization provision from being derailed.
The voting pattern left the most conservative members predicting the eventual demise of the legislation.
"The committee has voted down every serious border security amendment today," said Texas Republican Senator Ted Cruz. "If it doesn't have real border security, it will not pass (Congress)."
Schumer angrily rejected Cruz's characterization, saying, "It's tough as nails."
In roughly eight hours, the committee plowed through about 30 of the 300 amendments submitted.
Some of the amendments are designed to appeal to the Democratic majority, as well as many Republicans, as ways to improve the measure, which would be the first comprehensive change to immigration laws since 1986.
Others are seen as possible ways to kill it. Four of the "Gang of Eight" senators who crafted the complex measure are on the committee, and those two Democrats and two Republicans have agreed to jointly oppose any amendment seen as a "poison pill."
AVOIDING 'MISTAKES OF THE PAST'
The day began with a warning from the panel's top Republican that he would make the process as long and "arduous" as possible.
"I plan to ask many questions throughout this process," Iowa Senator Charles Grassley warned. "I want to know how the bill doesn't repeat the mistakes of the past."
Grassley, in a statement, promised an "arduous" and "robust" debate.
Grassley followed up with an amendment to require that the Obama administration achieve full control of illegal immigration at every part of the U.S. border before any undocumented people now in the United States could be considered for legal status.
"This amendment would set a standard that would basically delay probably forever" the legalization of the 11 million, Schumer said.
The committee defeated a move by Cruz to delay legalizing illegal immigrants until 40,000 more border patrol agents were hired to join the 21,000 already there. Opponents said that would cost as much as $40 billion and take 10 years to achieve.
POLL BACKS IMMIGRATION POLICY OVERHAUL
The kickoff of Senate Judiciary Committee debate on the bill came as a new Pew Research Center poll found 75 percent of Americans believed immigration policy needed major changes and 73 percent said there should be a way for illegal immigrants to stay in the United States.
But less than half, 44 percent, said they favored allowing illegal residents to apply for citizenship.
During a break, Schumer told reporters he worried "all the time" about a Democratic amendment that Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has offered that would cover same-sex couples in the bill's new immigration reform policies. He said the Gang of Eight was evenly split over that amendment.
It was not yet clear whether Leahy will try to attach that amendment to the bill during the committee's work on the bill or possibly wait until the bill reaches the full Senate.
The panel is to resume work on Tuesday.
Negotiations on a bill in the more conservative Republican-led House of Representatives slogged on.
According to one House source familiar with the negotiations, disagreements remained over several important matters, including how many low-skilled workers should be allowed into the United States for jobs ranging from cooks and hotel maids to construction workers. (Editing by Fred Barbash, Jackie Frank, Peter Cooney and Bob Burgdorfer)
Also on HuffPost:
The Naturalization Act of 1790
The Naturalization Act of 1790 was our country's first set of laws dealing with citizenship. Applicants had to be "<a href="http://rs6.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=226 " target="_hplink">a free white person</a>" of "good moral character." This excluded indentured servants and slaves. Good moral character was substantiated by establishing residence for at least one year in the state from where he was applying, and at least two years of residence in the country. The Naturalization Act of 1795 would extend that requirement to five years, and is still standard today.
The Fourteenth Amendment, 1868
A Reconstruction Amendment that was added to the U.S. Constitution following the Civil War, the Citizenship Clause of the 14th Amendment establishes for the first time that children born on U.S. soil would be conferred U.S. citizenship regardless of their parent's citizenship status, race, or place of birth. Last year, Rep. Steve King (R-IA) introduced the <a href="http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr140 " target="_hplink">Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011</a> to Congress, and challenged this. The bill would require that at least one parent be a U.S. citizen or permanent resident for a child to be granted citizenship. According to the <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/112-h140/text " target="_hplink">bill's text</a>, the Birthright Citizenship Act of 2011 would amend the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, and "clarify those classes of individuals born in the United States who are nationals and citizens of the United States at birth." Prior to this, Rep. Nathan Deal (R-GA) <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/26/nathan-deal-georgia-lawma_n_207485.html " target="_hplink">introduced</a> a similar <a href="http://www.opencongress.org/bill/111-h1868/show" target="_hplink">bill</a> in 2009.
The Naturalization Act of 1870
The Naturalization Act of 1870<a href="http://thepoliticsofimmigration.org/pages/chronology.htm " target="_hplink"> explicitly extended</a> naturalization laws to "aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent." This meant that for the first time, African-American children would be conferred citizenship upon birth. Asian immigrants and other people of color are excluded per the Naturalization Acts of 1790 and 1795.
The Page Act of 1875
Named after Republican Representative Horace F. Page, this is the first U.S. federal immigration law to explicitly prohibit the immigration of a particular group: persons of Asian descent. Primarily meant to limit Chinese immigrant labor and prostitution, the Page Act prohibited the immigration of: (1) contracted labor from "China, Japan, or any Oriental country" that was not "free and voluntary," (2) Chinese prostitution and (3) criminals and women who would engage in prostitution. Ultimately, the <a href="http://www.uchastings.edu/racism-race/pageact.html " target="_hplink">Page Act</a> severely <a href="http://immigration-online.org/228-page-act-united-states-1875.html " target="_hplink">restricted</a> the immigration of Asian women. Only 136 of the the nearly 40,000 Chinese immigrants who arrived in the months before the bill's enforcement were women. And, it would pave the way for the Chinese Exclusion Act. In this picture, Michael Lin, chair of the 1882 Project, a coalition of rights groups seeking a statement of regret over that year's Chinese Exclusion Act, speaks on May 26, 2011 in Washington, DC, at the US House of Representatives in front of a reproduction of a 19th-century sign that aimed at rousing up sentiment against Chinese Americans. Lawmakers introduced a bill that would offer an official statement of regret for the act, which banned further immigration of Chinese to the United States and ended citizenship rights for ethnic Chinese. (AFP PHOTO/SHAUN TANDON).
The Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882
Signed by President Chester A. Arthur, the <a href="http://www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/seven/chinxact.htm " target="_hplink">Chinese Exclusion Act</a> was the first federal immigration law to prohibit immigration on the basis of race. The bill barred all Chinese laborers, skilled and unskilled, from immigrating to the U.S. for ten years. It was made permanent by 1903, and was not lifted until the 1943 Magnuson Act. The 1898 Supreme Court <a href="http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html " target="_hplink">decision</a> in <em>United States v. Wong Kim Ark</em> finally extended naturalization laws to persons of Chinese descent by ruling that anyone born in the United States was indeed a U.S. citizen. This editorial cartoon from 1882 shows a Chinese man being excluded from entry to the "Golden Gate of Liberty." The sign next to the iron door reads, "Notice--Communist, Nihilist, Socialist, Fenian & Hoodlum welcome. But no admittance to Chinamen." At the bottom, the caption reads, "THE ONLY ONE BARRED OUT. Enlightened American Statesman--'We must draw the line <em>somewhere</em>, you know.'" (Image Source: Frank Leslie's illustrated newspaper, vol. 54 (1882 April 1), p. 96. [Public domain], via <a href="http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_only_one_barred_out_cph.3b48680.jpg" target="_hplink">Wikimedia Commons</a>).
The Naturalization Act of 1906
The Naturalization Act of 1906 further <a href="http://www.understandingrace.org/history/gov/eastern_southern_immigration.html" target="_hplink">defined</a> the naturalization process: the ability to speak English was made a <a href="http://www.enotes.com/topic/Naturalization_Act_of_1906" target="_hplink">requisite</a> for immigrants to adjust their status.
The Immigration Act of 1924
U.S. President Coolidge signed this U.S. federal <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1921-1936/ImmigrationAct " target="_hplink">bill</a> into law. It capped the number of immigrants who could be admitted entry to the U.S. and barred immigration of persons who were not eligible for naturalization. And, as the Naturalization Act of 1790 required, an immigrant had to be white in order to naturalize. The quotas varied by country. Image Source: Flickr Creative Commons, <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/nycmarines/6306315902/" target="_hplink">NYCMarines</a>.
The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 (The McCarran-Walter Act)
The <a href="https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:zwaVG82lZisJ:www-rohan.sdsu.edu/dept/polsciwb/brianl/docs/1952McCarranWaltersAct.pdf+&hl=en&gl=us&pid=bl&srcid=ADGEESjEwx76FIBTixZAfyncZz-1CSuSeciv5qB6vvWTrUfW58XRpXq8zkpnI57XSuuG5Bu-WSySGbEhxYvZxP7y6qDQuOsDhgDa6qUqUaJ8F4imTzKJsVtppHc_-eew2dK6vGhoIUZs&sig=AHIEtbTNQ5GFiNMVS-xyThq8VVSj_gG9KA " target="_hplink">McCarran-Walter Act</a> kept up the controversial Immigration Act of 1924, but <a href="http://history.state.gov/milestones/1945-1952/ImmigrationAct" target="_hplink">formally</a> ended Asian exclusion.
Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965
When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, it <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/USimmigration/1965_immigration_and_nationality_act.html" target="_hplink">abolished</a> the quota system that favored immigration from Europe and limited immigration from Asia and South America.
Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996
The 1996 <a href="http://www.uscis.gov/ilink/docView/PUBLAW/HTML/PUBLAW/0-0-0-10948.html " target="_hplink">Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act</a> (IIRIRA) is a piece of legislation that <a href="http://library.uwb.edu/guides/usimmigration/1996_illegal_immigration_reform_and_immigrant_responsibility_act.html " target="_hplink">defined</a> an array of issues to do with legal and illegal immigration -- from outlining how border patrol agents should administer visa processing, to the minutiae of how to handle deportation proceedings -- IIRIRA established enforcement and patrolling practices.