The US House of Representatives adopted new immigration legislation, including a measure to set up vast border fences that has strained ties with Mexico, late on Dec. 16.
The bill was adopted in a 239-182 vote, and deprived President George W. Bush of his proposed guest worker programme.
"The United States has a rich immigrant background and continues to benefit from the arrival of law-abiding citizens of other cultures and nationalities. But in this age of terrorism we cannot be lax when it comes to controlling our borders," House speaker Dennis Hastert said when the bill passed.
"Securing our nation's borders is an imperative and this bill does it," added House Judiciary Chairman James Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican.
The bill orders the Homeland Security Department to obtain "complete operational control" of US borders within 18 months. In addition to the southwestern fences, it orders the department to study the feasibility of erecting barriers on the border with Canada.
The legislation also calls for immigrants in the country illegally to face felony charges and potential jail time.
And the 8.4 million US employers would be required to contact a verification system by phone or through the Internet to ensure that a job applicant's Social Security number matches with one on file in the data bank.
Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, a pro-immigrant organization that opposed the bill, said: "It's a seismic shift in terms of how we treat people who are illegally in the country."
Bush released a statement saying: "I applaud the House for passing a strong immigration reform bill.
"America is a nation built on the rule of law, and this bill will help us protect our borders and crack down on illegal entry into the United States. Securing our borders is essential to securing the homeland. I urge the Senate to take action on immigration reform so that I can sign a good bill into law," Bush added.
A proposal to end the automatic right to US citizenship for all those born on US soil, defended by some conservatives, failed to gain support.
The House rules committee refused to allow consideration of guest worker plans pushed by Bush and others. Business groups and immigrant advocacy groups say such a programme is needed to ensure a steady flow of immigrant labour into the United States and give workers full legal protections.
The future of the bill in the US Senate is still uncertain. The Senate is due to deal with immigration in February. A recent study by the Congressional Budget Office found that one worker in seven in the US had immigrated, and more than 70 per cent of them from neighbouring Mexico and Central America.
[Last edited 30 June, 2006 for clarity. ]