Congress should approve changes in immigration law to give illegal immigrants a better path toward legal status, business, labor and religious groups said Thursday.

Representatives of a coalition of the groups said they generally favored legislation being offered by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that would permit illegal immigrants to obtain work visas for up to six years, with the opportunity to apply for permanent residency.

"We support legislation that would provide a step-by-step process in which an undocumented worker could qualify for permanent legal status," said Thomas Donohue, president and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

He was joined by Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, Terence O'Sullivan, general president of the Laborers' International Union of North America, Mark Franken of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Kelley Rice-Schild of the American Health Care Association.

The House last month passed legislation to tighten border controls and force employers to confirm the legal status of their workers. But it drew criticism from many groups involved in immigration issues, who stressed that Congress won't solve immigration problems unless it deals with the estimated 11 million people in the country illegally.

The Senate is expected to turn to immigration as early as next month, considering several ideas for guest worker programs. Along with the McCain-Kennedy bill, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., are promoting a temporary worker program under which people now in the country illegally would have to return home first to apply for a work visa.

Donohue said there aren't many issues — naming transportation and national security — where business and labor see eye-to-eye. "We have decided that this is a fundamental and essential issue for the future of our economy and our society."

An underground economy, said SEIU's Stern, "undermines standards for all workers in this country and creates division in workplaces and in our communities."

Donohue said the business community sees a temporary worker system as essential for addressing the current and future worker shortage. He denied that business sees immigrants as a source of cheap labor.

"The status quo or a border security bill with draconian fines and penalties would only drive them deeper into the shadows and subject them on occasion to exploitation," he said.

The group also agreed that the Cornyn-Kyl approach of requiring those here illegally to return to their home countries to apply for visas could be unworkable. It would be "enormously disruptive," Stern said.

O'Sullivan said that while his 800,000-member group backs McCain-Kennedy, it would like to see tougher labor market tests to ensure that the foreign workers are needed and that they don't bring down wages.

The AFL-CIO has taken a different approach to guest workers than the 1.8-million member SEIU, which last summer joined other unions in breaking away from the national labor federation.

AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson, in a letter this week to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said her group supports the legalization of undocumented workers already living and paying taxes in the United States. But she said there are better and more moral solutions available than the massive expansion of temporary worker programs that serve to provide employers with a steady stream of vulnerable workers.