HOUSTON (AP) _ Sen. John McCain challenged other Republican presidential candidates Tuesday to propose their own immigration legislation or stop criticizing the plan he's co-sponsoring.
Rival Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, kept up his criticism of the proposal, which could allow the legalization of most of the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants while increasing border security.
``I think it's a matter of national security,'' McCain said, ``and to do nothing _ to leave the status quo _ would be an abrogation of our responsibilities to the American people.''
McCain, speaking amid a series of fundraisers in Houston, added, ``If they've got another proposal that will pass the Congress of the United States, then let's hear that.''
McCain's challenge came in response to the criticism of several GOP presidential contenders _ primarily Romney _ of the immigration bill as ineffective and a form of amnesty for illegal immigrants.
Romney, in Dallas for fundraisers, said Tuesday the bill was ``for all intents and purposes, amnesty.''
The immigration bill calls for tightening border security, granting legal status to nearly all the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants, and increasing penalties for employers who hire illegal workers.
It would create a point system for future immigration applicants that would place less emphasis on family connections and more on education and skills in demand by U.S. businesses.
``The idea of an amnesty-type provision is something I oppose and continue to oppose,'' Romney said.
McCain, an Arizona Republican, described the bill, drafted by a bipartisan group and backed by the White House, as the country's best hope to secure its borders from illegal immigration. McCain acknowledged that he had faced repeated questions about the legislation since arriving Monday night in Texas.
``I hope the American people can convince their senators that the status quo is totally unacceptable,'' he said. ``They expect us to act. They expect us to be legislators.''
Romney denied an earlier criticism from McCain that he had flip-flopped on immigration, saying that he had always favored a secure border, an employment verification system and a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants that does not give them advantages over those arriving legally.
McCain also responded to his opponents' questions about whether he ever employed illegal immigrants as landscapers or in other positions at his large homestead in Arizona.
``No, we did not hire anyone who was in this country illegally, and we made sure we didn't. And you might go back to my opponent's camp and (tell them) we've moved,'' he joked. ``We now live in a condominium, OK? Duh.''
McCain got the questions after a jab at Romney on Monday. McCain said Romney's solution to illegal immigration might be ``to get out his small varmint gun and drive those Guatemalans off his lawn'' _ a reference to reports that several illegal immigrants, including at least one from Guatemala, worked on Romney's two-and-a-half acre property in a Boston suburb for a decade. Romney's aides have said that Romney was not aware of the workers' status, and that the owner of the lawn care company was in the country legally.
``I have respect for Senator McCain, and I guess it just shows that even when he's wrong, he's amusing,'' Romney said on Tuesday.