Story Highlights• Arizona senator says legislation is result of working with all sides
• Giuliani says the compromise fails to make things better
• Romney says change in law is unfair to legal immigrants
• Brownback offers tepid support with many caveats
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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Sen. John McCain defended his support of a controversial immigration reform bill from criticism by other Republican presidential hopefuls Tuesday night as the GOP contenders held their first debate in New Hampshire.
"America is still the land of opportunity, and it is a beacon of hope and liberty and, as Ronald Reagan said, a shining city on the hill," McCain said. "And we're not going to erect barriers and fences."
McCain was a lonely voice on the stage at Saint Anselm College in defense of the plan now being debated in the Senate. The front-runner in recent polls, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, called it "a typical Washington mess."
"The litmus test you should have for legislation is, is it going to make things better?" Giuliani said. "And when you look at these compromises, it is quite possible it will make things worse."
And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said the bill's central proposal, to offer a path to legal status for an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, was unfair.
"It's simply not fair to say those people get put ahead in the line of all the people who've been waiting legally to come to this country," Romney said.
Only Sen. Sam Brownback joined McCain in offering a defense of the bill, and that was qualified.
"I think if you do exterior enforcement, border enforcement, you do aggressive interior enforcement, and then you work on a comprehensive solution interior, that's something that a lot of people are going to be upset with but that can work and move us forward," he said. "And it's better than not doing anything."
Rep. Tom Tancredo, whose presidential campaign is rooted in his strong opposition to immigration reform, said the bill would be the first step toward abandoning English as a national language and becoming "a bilingual nation," which he opposes.
"How long will it take for us to catch up with the millions of people who have come here, both legally and illegally, and assimilate them?" Tancredo said. "I'll tell you this. It will take this long -- until we no longer have to press one for English and two for any other language."
"What we're doing here in this immigration battle is testing our willingness to hold together as a nation or split apart into a lot of Balkanized pieces," he said.
But McCain said, "If someone else has a better idea, I'd love to have them give it to us."
"What we have done is what you expect us to do, my friends, and that's come together with the president of the United States, the leader of our party, Democrat and Republican, conservative Republicans like Jon Kyl, Johnny Isakson, Saxby Chambliss and Trent Lott, and sit down and figure out an approach to this problem," he said.
He said the bipartisan compromise he is backing does indeed create "a special path" for now-undocumented workers: "It's especially hard. It's eight to 13 years."