PHILADELPHIA -- The economy of the country's largest city and the entire nation would collapse if illegal immigrants were deported en masse, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg told a Senate committee hearing Wednesday.
New York City is home to more than 3 million immigrants, and a half-million of them came to this country illegally, Bloomberg testified.
"Although they broke the law by illegally crossing our borders ... our city's economy would be a shell of itself had they not, and it would collapse if they were deported," he said. "The same holds true for the nation."
The hearing, led by Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., in Philadelphia, was one of several being held nationwide as congressional Republicans take to the road to discuss overhauling the nation's immigration laws.
A West Coast session held Wednesday by a Republican-led House subcommittee at a Border Patrol station in San Diego drew demonstrators on both sides of the issue. A pro-immigration rally included a mariachi band playing beside a row of wooden crosses set up in memory of people who died attempting to cross the border.
House GOP leaders called for the hearings last month in a blow to President Bush's ambitious election-year plan that includes a guest worker program and path to citizenship for millions in this country illegally.
Specter and fellow senators are trying to build support for a Senate bill that would allow a majority of the illegal immigrants in the country to eventually become legal permanent residents and citizens after paying at least $3,250 in fines, fees and back taxes and learning English.
The competing bill passed by the House focuses on enforcement and has no provision for illegal immigrants or future guest workers.
Bloomberg encouraged Congress to offer illegal immigrants an opportunity to earn permanent status.
"Members of the House of Representatives want to control the borders. So do all of us here," Bloomberg said. "But believing that increasing border patrols alone will achieve that goal is either naive and shortsighted or cynical and duplicitous. No wall or army can stop hundreds of thousands of people each year."
Meanwhile, President Bush, visiting a Dunkin' Donuts shop in Alexandria, Va., promoted his view that immigration legislation should provide some means for illegal immigrants who have been in the U.S. for a long time to stay.
"We cannot kick people out who have been here for awhile," Bush said, adding that they should be "treated with respect and dignity."
"I'm absolutely opposed to amnesty. Amnesty says you're automatically a citizen. That would be a mistake," Bush said. "But I'm also realistic to tell you that we're not going to be able to deport people who've been here working hard and supporting their families."
At Wednesday's hearing in Philadelphia, Louis J. Barletta, the mayor of Hazelton, said crimes involving illegal immigrants had drained his city's resources. Barletta, who made national headlines when he pushed for local ordinances aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants, asked for assistance from the federal government.
"We must dig deep into the city's accounts to pay for illegal immigrants, while illegal immigrants do not pay their fair share of taxes, either to the city, the county, the state or the country," Barletta said.
A House subcommittee was meeting Wednesday at a San Diego Border Patrol station to examine security lapses that could expose the U.S. to terrorism. The same panel planned another hearing Friday in Laredo, Texas.
Outside the San Diego station, about 30 opponents of illegal immigration demonstrated while a TV monitor carried a live feed from the hearings inside.
"When they have anything like this, we have to come to show our anger at what is going on," said Jennifer Reynolds, 38.
At the nearby pro-immigration rally, the Rev. Art Cribbs, pastor of the Christian Fellowship Congregational church in San Diego, blamed politicians for poor economic policies that pit middle-class Americans against migrant workers.
"We are being played one against the other," he said.
On Wednesday night, Sen. Rick Santorum, a Republican in a tough re-election fight in Pennsylvania, told about 120 supporters in Monroeville that the Senate bill would send illegal immigrants to the front of the line to gain citizenship.
Santorum said the nation must secure its borders first and then develop a system to allow an employer to know whether a job applicant is eligible to work in the United States. After that, he said, the country must create a temporary worker program "that is truly temporary."
Specter said earlier that Santorum "may find our ultimate package to his satisfaction" and denied that the Senate bill offered amnesty to illegal immigrants, something Santorum has said he opposes.
"Amnesty is when you forgive someone for something they have done," Specter said. "There is no forgiveness here."