WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate Thursday passed the most significant revision of U.S. immigration law in a generation, in a bipartisan vote the bill’s backers say will put pressure on the Republican-controlled House to act.
The measure, passed 68-32, would create a path to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the United States, a priority for the Senate’s majority Democrats. It would direct $46.3 billion toward securing the border with Mexico — the costliest plan ever — added to gain Republican support.
“This legislation will be good for America’s national security as well as its economic security,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat. “It makes unprecedented investments in border security, it cracks down on crooked employers who exploit and abuse immigrant workers, and it reforms our legal immigration system.”
The product of months of negotiations, the bill, S. 744, is encountering resistance in the House. Republicans in that chamber strongly oppose the citizenship path. Many Republicans prefer a piecemeal approach requiring proof that border-security measures are working before lawmakers would consider any form of legal status for undocumented immigrants.
Vice President Joe Biden presided over the Senate vote.
U.S. immigration law hasn’t been substantially revamped since 1986, when President Ronald Reagan signed a law that made 3 million undocumented workers eligible for legal status. That measure created a market for fraudulent documentation, and illegal immigration soared, discouraging later efforts to legalize undocumented immigrants.
A 2007 immigration plan died in the Senate and wasn’t considered in the House. The prospects for passage of a bipartisan bill are greater this time because some Republicans see the issue as a way to boost the party’s appeal with Hispanic voters, 71 percent of whom supported President Barack Obama in November.
The measure’s final passage “gets it out of the Senate with the wind at its back,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican co-sponsoring the bill, said Thursday. “Amnesty was the word of the day in 2006 and 2007. Now there’s been a sea change. Legal status for the 11 million is seen as a practical solution.”
Wednesday, senators amended the bill to strengthen its border-security provisions. The measure would double the U.S. Border Patrol’s size by adding 20,000 agents, require 700 miles of fencing at the Mexico border, and add unmanned aerial drones to help police the border.
All employers would have to check workers’ legal status with an e-verify system, and a visa entry and exit system would be required at all airports and seaports.
Those provisions would have to be in place before any undocumented immigrant could gain permanent legal status, known as a green card.
The measure approved by the Judiciary Committee included $8.3 billion in security costs. The amendment adopted yesterday added $38 billion, including $30 billion for new border control agents.
Still, most Senate Republicans, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, voted against the bill. McConnell, who is seeking re-election in 2014, said Thursday he isn’t convinced the measure would secure the U.S. border and deter future illegal immigration. His refusal to support the bill may encourage some Republicans to oppose it in the House.
“I had wanted very much to support a reform to our immigration law,” McConnell said on the Senate floor. “So it’s with a great deal of regret, for me at least, that the final bill didn’t turn out to be something that I could support.”
While the bill’s border-security elements consumed the vast majority of floor debate, the nearly thousand-page legislation also would revamp U.S. visa programs. It would create a program for low-skilled, non-farm workers through an agreement between the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s biggest business lobbying group, and the AFL-CIO, the largest labor federation.
“This bill includes input from almost every member of this body,” said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the chamber’s third-ranking Democrat and an author of the bill. “That’s what makes this bill strong.”
He said the measure drew backing from a range of groups including farmers, technology companies and immigrant-rights organizations.
The Senate bill, unveiled in April, was drafted after months of talks between four Republican and four Democratic senators. The group’s Republican members are Graham, John McCain of Arizona, Marco Rubio of Florida and Jeff Flake of Arizona. The Democratic members are Schumer, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.
The Judiciary Committee spent three weeks considering more than 100 amendments to the measure in May. Four of the bill’s authors are members of the panel, and they banded together to defeat proposals from both parties that could imperil support for the measure.
That included a proposal from Texas Republican Ted Cruz that would have eliminated the path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
House leaders said their chamber will consider its own legislation on immigration, though details haven’t been worked out on how to proceed.
“The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes,” House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Thursday in Washington. “Immigration reform has to be grounded in real border security.”
Boehner has said he won’t bring immigration legislation to the House floor unless it has support from most of the chamber’s Republicans. He has turned to Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., the Judiciary Committee chairman, to set the pace for the House’s efforts.
Goodlatte prefers dividing immigration legislation into smaller pieces. So far, the judiciary panel has approved measures setting up a new farm guest worker program; strengthening enforcement of immigration laws, and expanding an electronic employment verification program. The panel today is considering visas for high-skilled foreign workers.
The bills approved by committee Republicans haven’t attracted Democratic support, in contrast with Boehner’s position that immigration overhaul should pass with a majority of both Republicans and Democrats.
“The path forward in the House is going to look different than in the Senate,” said Angela Maria Kelley, vice president for immigration policy at the Center for American Progress, a Democratic-aligned research group in Washington.
Kelley said the fact that the House hasn’t drafted a proposal to address the 11 million undocumented immigrants now in the U.S. was “a pretty glaring omission in terms of effective policy.”
Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., said Wednesday in an interview that the Senate bill was “dead on arrival” in the House because most Republicans in the Senate opposed it.
“Why in the world would a majority of Republicans embrace something in the House that a majority of Republicans in the Senate didn’t embrace?” he said.
With assistance from Laura Litvan and Roxana Tiron in Washington.
© 2013, Bloomberg News