With bipartisan muscle, a House committee approved an amendment to immigration law that would allow non-citizens convicted of certain crimes to appeal their automatic deportation proceedings and for those already deported to appeal for their return.

In an 18 to 15 vote, the House Judiciary Committee approved the bill introduced by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., a week after he helped shepherd through a compromise with Chairman James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis. As a result, five Republicans joined 13 Democrats to approve the bill.

The legislation is an amendment to the Immigration and Nationality Act, which would allow exceptions to the law that calls for automatic deportation of foreign residents convicted of an "aggravated felony," and would apply to legal residents in the United States who have been living here for no less than seven years and have had legal resident status for no less than five years.

In the immigration law, the definition of "aggravated felony" includes violent crimes like murder, rape and robbery, but also covers anything from shoplifting and simple marijuana possession — crimes considered misdemeanors and punishable by fine in most domestic courts.

The amendment passed Tuesday would allow those convicted of the lesser crimes to appeal their deportation, a right they do not have now.

The vote drew disappointment from immigration watchdogs who say they are shocked at the bill's timing, coming less than a year after the worst terrorists attacks against the country, blamed in part for an uncoordinated and backlogged immigration system.

"If you invited a guest to your home and that guest stole your jewelry, or used your child in pornography, or gave drugs to your teenager, you would ask them to leave," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who voted against the amendment. "That is what we should continue to do with criminal aliens who have been convicted of serious crimes."

The Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) estimates that in 2000, approximately 185,000 non-citizens were deported for administrative reasons, like overdue visas, fraud and illegal entry. Of that number, 40,785 were removed for the conviction of a crime.

While the amendment wouldn't change the definition of crimes punishable by deportation, it would allow those convicted of non-violent crimes carrying less than four years prison time to appeal directly to the attorney general's office to reverse the deportation proceedings. It would also allow those convicted of violent crimes appeal — provided that they carry less than a two-year sentence and there was no bodily injury or death involved.

The non-resident would have to be living here legally at the time of the conviction to apply for the appeal. Those who had already been deported under the 1996 law and who qualified under the new terms would also be able to appeal retroactively.

"You've got a young man who at 19 was a jerk and was caught with marijuana, or cocaine or maybe he was shoplifting, but now he's turned around his life, he has a family and kids. But under the law now, he gets deported," said Frank, who noted that when the 1996 law was passed thousands of people were kicked out retroactively, some of whom had spent most of their lives here and had taken plea bargains on petty crimes like public disturbances.

"Shouldn't the attorney general be able to say whether this is a right thing or a wrong thing?" he said.

A version of the bill passed the House two years ago, but died in the Senate, according to Frank. Officials in his office said the next stop for this bill would be the House floor, but it is not likely to be taken up anytime soon.