Hunter disagrees. Instead of enacting a law that encourages figurative line-cutting, Hunter said, individual exceptions could be made.
"It perpetuates the idea that if you come over illegally, at some point or another you'll be taken care of," he said.
Under current law, if undocumented immigrants living in the United States have a sponsoring family member or employer who is a U.S. citizen or permanent resident, they must go to their countries to apply for U.S. residency.
But in what immigration advocates call a catch-22, they would be barred from legally re-entering the United States for up to 10 years because of their illegal status. The proposal approved by the House would reinstate a rule that temporarily relieves qualified immigrants from having to leave the United States before they can apply for U.S. residency if they paid a penalty of $1,000.
For four years the exemption was in place, but it expired in 1998. In December it was reinstated but only until April 30. Some lawmakers who voted for the bill had reservations about the length of the extension, saying it was "arbitrarily short" and may end up exacerbating the problem.
"This is going to break it, it isn't going to fix it," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, referring to the extension.
Just hours before the vote, Jackson Lee said she was still unsure how she would vote, but finally voted for the bill.
"I don't like the four months, I don't want the four months, and I'd like it frankly if it didn't pass," Jackson Lee said.
She and Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., said the extension should have been longer, arguing a short extension was an invitation to scam artists to profit from desperate undocumented immigrants. They said the extension would overburden an already heavily understaffed and underfunded Immigration and Naturalization Service.
President Bush has repeatedly said he would favor an extension to help keep families together. The bill includes a new provision that critics say is vague and would be difficult for the INS to enforce, requiring the applicant to prove that the relationship, serving as the basis of the stay, had existed on or before April 30.
"What does that mean?" asked Jackson Lee.
"I don't think INS even knows how it would draft regulations to implement such a test," said Jeanne Butterfield, executive director of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
Some lawmakers insisted that regardless of the length, an extension should not substitute for complete immigration reform.
"This current immigration system … is Byzantine, it is schizophrenic, it is inconsistent," said Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. "It works against trade laws and against our foreign policy."
He said the extension was just one step toward the reform that is needed.