ATLANTA — Former President Jimmy Carter on Wednesday called immigration a human-rights issue, saying he supports a reform bill being considered by the U.S. Senate while calling for humane treatment of the millions of workers it will impact.

The Senate is set to vote as early as Thursday on a bill that calls for tougher border security as well as an eventual chance at citizenship for millions of men and women in the country illegally.

Carter, a Democrat and frequent critic of President Bush, called the Republican president’s commitment to immigration reform “quite admirable,” saying he agrees with Bush’s support of a system that would eventually grant citizenship to some illegals.

The law should secure the nation’s borders while “at the same time treating those who are here with respect and giving them some hope for the future,” Carter said.

The Senate plan, which closely mirrors Bush’s own proposal, faces an uncertain fate in the House, where representatives have passed legislation that would expose all illegal immigrants to felony charges.

Carter was speaking at the close of a three-day forum of international human rights workers at The Carter Center in Atlanta.

He suggested that racism is at the root of some anti-immigration sentiment that has surfaced across the nation in recent months and said he believes much illegal immigration into the U.S. is spurred by employers paying low salaries for difficult jobs many U.S. citizens don’t want.

“Quite often, the people that oppose this issue — almost on a racist basis — are the very ones who have frozen the minimum wage in our nation for nine years now,” Carter said.

Maureen Byrnes, executive director of New York-based Human Rights First, which co-sponsored the forum, said her group is working with lawmakers in hopes of removing portions of the immigration legislation she said would make it harder for political dissidents who fear for their safety to seek asylum in the U.S.

The three-day Human Rights Defenders Policy Forum brought human rights activists from 22 countries to the Carter Center. The group plans to present a list of findings to policy-makers in Washington later this month.

Panelists, including Carter, said nations around the world are slipping in their commitment to human rights and democracy as terrorism fears cause even established democracies to partner with “dictators and tyrants” and to crack down on the liberties of their own citizens.


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