The Senate has approved a historic immigration reform bill that offers a path to citizenship to millions of undocumented immigrants living in the United States and allocates billions of dollars to secure the border.
The bill, brought forward by the so-called Gang of Eight, was approved Thursday by a vote of 68 to 32, with all Democrats and 14 Republicans uniting to vote in favor of the sweeping legislation. Just as the vote count was announced, advocates inside the Senate began chanting, “Yes, we can.”
“Pass this bill and allow the bright torch of Lady Liberty continue to shine brightly as a beacon around the globe for generations to come,” Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told his colleagues moments before the Senate approved the immigration legislation he and other members of the Gang of Eight authored.
Thursday’s vote places the bill one step closer to becoming the first overhaul of the nation’s immigration system since 1986. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) understood the bill’s historic significance, so he asked senators to be at their desks for the final vote — something that is usually reserved for historic votes.
“It’s a very important piece of legislation — it’s historic in nature,” Reid said just hours before the vote. “We should be here to vote, and we’re going to be here to vote in our chairs.”
Bill offers sweeping reforms to U.S. immigration system
The immigration reform bill was approved after weeks of contentious debate on the Senate floor and after facing hundreds of amendments in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
At its core, the Gang of Eight’s bill offers a 13-year path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. before Dec. 31, 2011. It provides additional funding to ramp up security at the U.S.-Mexico border and mandates all employers to use E-Verify. It increases the number of high-skilled visas (H-1B) and creates a new visa program for low-skilled workers. Unlike past immigration reform bills, it allows some deported immigrants to come back and begin the legalization process.
The bill also includes an amendment to hire nearly 20,000 more Border Patrol agents, fund the completion of the 700 miles of double-layered fencing and blanket the U.S.-Mexico border with new surveillance technology to track unauthorized border-crossers. The amendment mandates that all of these provisions be in place before undocumented immigrants can begin applying for legal permanent residency. The Senate voted 69 to 29 on Wednesday to approve that amendment, which was offered by Sens. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.).
Opponents of the bill said that even with the Corker-Hoeven amendment, the bill fails to adequately secure the border before legalization of undocumented immigrants begins. Others argued the bill was rushed through the Senate floor and not enough time was dedicated to discuss what’s in the bill.
Senators give emotional testimonies to explain their vote
Prior to voting on the Gang of Eight’s immigration reform bill, several of the bill’s authors gave emotional testimonies, explaining why they support the bill.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) said he was voting for the bill because he believes in immigrants like his parents, who he said came to the U.S. from Cuba “in search of a better life,” and because he believes the U.S. is “still the hope of the world” for many immigrants.
“Go to our factories and fields. Go to our kitchens and construction sites. Go to the cafeteria of this very Capitol,” he said on the Senate floor. “There, you will find that the miracle of America still lives. For here, in America, those who once had no hope will give their children the life they once wanted for themselves. Here, in America, generations of unfulfilled dreams will finally come to pass.”
In explaining his vote, Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) spoke about his mother, a Lithuanian immigrant, and said he dedicated his vote to her. He also recalled an emotional meeting he had with Dreamers in December 2010, right after the DREAM Act — legislation to allow undocumented youth to become citizens — came five votes short of passing in the Senate.
“Their heads were down and they were crying and they said, ‘What can we do?’” Durbin said on the Senate floor Thursday. “I said to them, ‘I’m never giving up on you, don’t give up on me.’”
“Well today, I have a message for them,” he continued. “For Gabby, for Tolu and all the Dreamers in the gallery here and all around the country, your courage inspired us. Your determination kept us going and your faith in the only country you’ve ever called home has been rewarded.”
Durbin proceeded to say that the Senate immigration reform bill contains the “strongest DREAM Act ever written.” It provides Dreamers with a five-year path to legal permanent residency, instead of the 13-year path offered to all undocumented immigrants, and it doesn’t have an age cap.
Passage of immigration reform bill uncertain in the House
The Gang of Eight’s landmark immigration bill now heads to the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where the chances of it passing are uncertain.
Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said he will not bring it to the floor if it doesn’t have support from a majority of Republicans. Meanwhile, a House bipartisan group is working on its own immigration reform bill set to be ready sometime in June.
Authors of the immigration reform bill are hoping that the overwhelming majority vote to approve the bill in the Senate will influence House Republicans to back the bill, but it’s uncertain whether that will happen. That’s because many of the Republicans there oppose the path to citizenship offered in the Gang of Eight’s bill. And rather than a comprehensive approach, many of them are for a piecemeal approach to immigration reform.
Still, Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) said he hopes House Republicans will have “the political will and courage” to unite with Democrats in backing the bill and voting to send it to President Barack Obama’s desk. Menendez’s message to House Republicans on Thursday was clear: “Do the right thing for America and for your party, find common ground, lean away from the extremes, offer reason and govern with us.”
“The time has come to act on the interest of all Americans, and I hope that message will be heard loud and clear in the House,” he said on the Senate floor. “In my view, the leadership in the other body has a chance to be American heroes, a chance to bring both sides together in an alliance that will ensure passage of this bill.”