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Momentum building for US immigration overhaul

New polls show Americans open to change in law

John McCain, in Iowa Friday, planned to give a speech today in Coral Gables, Fla., with a message for his rival candidates. (Charlie Neibergall/associated press)

WASHINGTON -- After a week at home with their constituents, the Senate architects of a delicate immigration compromise are increasingly convinced they will hold together this week to pass a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

Momentum is building behind one unifying theme: Today's immigration system is too broken to go unaddressed.

Congress's week long Memorial Day recess was expected to leave the bill in tatters. But with a week of action set to begin today, the legislation's champions say they now believe the voices of opposition, especially from conservatives, represent a small segment of public opinion.

Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, who led negotiations on the bill for his party, said the flood of angry calls and protests that greeted the deal two weeks ago has receded every day since then.

"You just have to recognize you will get 300 calls, you'll get conflicts at town hall meetings, all of them negative," said Representative Jeff Flake, Republican of Arizona, who consulted with Kyl and hopes to carry a similar deal through the House in July. "The last few days have really turned things around."

Public opinion polls seem to support Kyl's contention that Americans are far more open to the deal than the voices of opposition would indicate. In a new Washington Post-ABC News poll, 52 percent said they would support a program giving illegal immigrants the right to stay and work in the United States if they pay a fine and meet other requirements. Opposition to that proposal was 44 percent.

As the Senate prepared to resume debate on the issue today, Senator John McCain of Arizona, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, planned to give a speech in Coral Gables, Fla., with a message for his rival candidates: Opposing the immigration bill for political gain will only worsen the problem.

"I would hope that any candidate for president would not suggest doing nothing," McCain said in prepared remarks. "And I would hope they wouldn't play politics for their own interests if the cost of their ambition was to make this problem even harder to solve. To want the office so badly that you would intentionally make our country's problems worse might prove you can read a poll or take a cheap shot, but it hardly demonstrates presidential leadership."

Former governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has denounced the immigration bill, which he said would provide "amnesty" to illegal immigrants. While McCain's speech does not mention any candidate by name, his advisers said Romney is the target.

Kevin Madden, a Romney spokesman, said McCain's criticism reflected desperation because his views are at odds with those of primary voters.

The dozen senators who forged the immigration deal have been able to hold their compromise together so far, beating back amendments that the group deemed to be coalition killers, such as one to strike the bill's temporary-worker program and another to kill its provisions to legalize the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants.

This week's amendments are more subtle, and therefore more threatening to the coalition.

Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, will push to move up the date before which the backlog of family-based immigration applications would have to be processed by the Department of Homeland Security, adding 833,000 immigrants, and Kyl said he will withdraw his support for the bill if the amendment passes.

He will also walk if Menendez and Senator Christopher Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut, win passage of an amendment that would more than double the number of green cards available under the bill for parents of US citizens. Kyl said conservatives believe the family unification system is abused by illegal immigrants whose US-born children are citizens.

Such amendments will be difficult to resist for the compromise's chief Democratic architect, Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts, who helped create the family unification system in 1965 and whom conservatives are now counting on to help dismantle it.

Republicans in the coalition will be expected to oppose amendments that put them in equally difficult positions.

Material from The New York Times was included in this report.

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