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A day before thousands of illegal immigrants lose their eligibility to remain in the United States while applying for legal residence, the House acted Monday to extend the deadline by three weeks.

On a 355-57 vote, the House approved a stopgap bill bankrolling government operations beyond the Oct. 1 start of the fiscal year. The bill, which finances government through Oct. 23 while Congress completes its appropriations process, also would extend to that date the immigration provision due to expire at midnight today. The Senate is due to take up similar legislation today.

Immigrant communities nationwide have been in a panic in recent weeks over possible loss of the measure that allows undocumented immigrants to file here for legal status instead of at U.S. consulates abroad. In exchange, filers must pay a $1,000 fine.

The legislation does not benefit all the 5 million-plus illegal immigrants in the United States. Instead, it is targeted at those eligible for legal residence, either because they're already in line for visas or are the spouse or minor child of a U.S. citizen. Parents of adult children who are U.S. citizens also can apply.

Some 345,000 people took advantage of the rule in 1995 and 1996. This year, an estimated 214,000 are applying.

Critics say the program should be ended. They contend the government shouldn't reward immigrants who are here unlawfully at the expense of those who are following the rules. Extension also would foster more illegal immigration, they say.

Lawmakers will decide next month whether to renew the provision for a longer period. The Senate already has approved a permanent extension.

Immigrant-rights groups argue that the provision, which is supported by business and religious organizations, benefits only those who already are on track for legal residence.

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