WASHINGTON – The Senate approved a sweeping immigration overhaul Thursday in a strong bipartisan vote after an afternoon of emotional speeches as senators told personal stories of family journeys to the United States while visitors filled the galleries around the chamber.
The 70-vote tally that the bill’s drafters had hoped would spark momentum in the House slipped as Republicans peeled away. The final vote was 68-32, with 14 Republicans joining all of the Democrats.
Still, the outcome was significant in a divided Congress that rarely finds bipartisan agreement. But the landmark legislation has dim hope in the GOP-controlled House.
Despite drawing significant support from Republican senators with the addition of $46 billion in border security, House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) has no immediate plans to consider the bill. His GOP majority opposes the bill’s path to citizenship for the 11 million immigrants in the country without legal status, and House Republicans are drafting their own bills.
“Well before they ever became citizens, in their hearts they had already become Americans,” said Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a drafter of the bill, said of his own parents who came from Cuba. “This is not just my story. This is our story. … For over 200 years now they have come in search of liberty and freedom for sure. But often just in search of a job to feed their kids and a chance at a better life.”
Lines snaked around the halls leading to the Senate gallery entrances. Many of those who traveled to the Capitol to watch the vote were young immigrants who came to the United States as children. They call themselves Dreamers, after a provision in the bill that would give them a route to citizenship if they serve in the military or attend college. Dozens of them wore matching turquoise T-shirts reading “11 million Dreams.” Others were families of immigrants and advocates.
“We all want to stay here,” Adriana Teran, 29, who cleans houses in Charlotte, N.C., and was waiting in line with her husband and toddler for the chance to watch the proceedings. She came to the U.S. from Mexico and does not have legal status, though her 2-year-old, Juliet, is a U.S. citizen. She said her husband faces a deportation order. “It’s super important to see this vote.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) asked his colleagues to sit at their assigned seats for the roll call, which is rarely done as senators usually zip in and out for votes.
“It's historic in nature, we should be here to vote,” Reid said.
The immigration overhaul has deeply divided the Republican Party, which now faces a difficult choice over how to proceed. Some do not expect the House to finish its work until the end of the year.
Top Republicans see the legislation as an important part of the party’s re-branding effort, as it reaches out to Latino and other minority voters. But for many Senate Republicans, and those in the House, offering citizenship to those without legal status is a non-starter.
Even the addition of the unprecedented “border surge” of drones, troops and fencing along the boundary with Mexico did not convince most Senate Republicans that illegal immigration would diminish. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, and other top Republican senators voted no.
“It’s with a great deal of regret, for me at least, that the final bill didn’t turn out to be something I can support,” McConnell said. “If you can’t be reasonably certain that the border is secure as a condition of legalization, there’s just no way to be sure that millions more won’t follow the illegal immigrants who are already here.”
The legislation was the product of a hard-fought agreements reached among powerful players in Washington, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO and advocates for immigrants.
Under the legislation, immigrants would be able to gain legal permanent resident status with green cards in 10 years, once the border has been bolstered with 24-hour drones, 20,000 new Border Patrol officers and 700 miles of fence, among other measures. They must also have paid fines and fees, know English and be in good standing after undergoing background checks.
Because 40% of the immigrants in the country illegally did not cross borders but stayed on expired visas, a new visa exit system would be required at all major airports.
The overhaul would substantially reform the nation’s long-standing preference for family members to join immigrants living here. Under the new system, more preference is given to workers.
A new guest-worker program for low-skilled maids, gardeners and others would be launched, and more high-skilled visas would be available. To stem illegal immigration, all employers will need to verify the legal status of new hires.