WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday voted 68-32 to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, a plan that creates a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants living in this country illegally while requiring tough new steps to secure the nation’s borders.
The measure, the most sweeping changes to immigration law since the 1980s, faces a perilous path in the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said: “The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes. We’re going to do our own bill.”
Though the outcome of the Senate vote was expected, Senate leaders created fresh drama by having members take the unusual step of voting in their seats, a practice reserved for only the most momentous occasions. One by one, senators rose from their seats to declare their votes, as a packed gallery looked on, including an entire section of college students and parents wearing bright-blue “United We Dream” T-shirts.
The vote was a robust endorsement of a 1,200-page bill painstakingly crafted by the “Gang of Eight” senators from both parties and amended this week to bring in some skeptics. Fourteen Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents in voting yes Thursday, while 32 Republicans voted no. Washington’s senators, Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell, both voted for the measure.
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Debate was unusually impassioned.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., invoked the spirit of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who worked to enact immigration legislation before his death in 2009. “Senator Kennedy knew the day would come when a group of senators divided by party, but united by love of country, would see this fight to the finish,” Reid said as he closed the debate. “That day is today.”
Reid also read from letters he had received from Astrid Silva, of Las Vegas, whose family came to the U.S. from Mexico illegally when she was 3 and whose story has been an inspiration for him during work on the immigration bill. She was in the gallery to see the measure pass.
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a key architect of the bill, had endured sharp criticism from conservatives for his efforts to find common ground. Before he voted yes Thursday, he recalled his parents, who came to this country from Cuba.
“Well before they became citizens, in their hearts they had already become Americans,” he said. “It reminds us that sometimes we focus so much on how immigrants could change America, that we forget that America changes immigrants even more. This is not just my story,” Rubio said.
Under the legislation, employers would have to check a potential employee’s legal status, and the number of visas available for skilled workers needed by the technology industry would be increased.
The measure would create a 13-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million immigrants in the country illegally. Those eligible could first apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant status, and achieve that status if they pass a background check, have not been convicted of a serious crime, pay any taxes owed and pay a $500 fine.
The registration would be valid for six years, allowing the immigrants to work and travel. After that time, the status could be renewed, as long as the same conditions are met. They also would have to show they had been regularly employed and had sufficient financial resources.
After 10 years, the status could again be adjusted. Immigrants would have to meet new requirements, including proficiency in English and a new $1,000 fine. Three years after that, in most cases, they could achieve citizenship.
Before green cards are issued to those with provisional legal status, though, five security-related conditions would need to be met.
Most notably, top executive-branch officials would have to certify that certain steps had been taken to secure the U.S.-Mexico border. Under a deal brokered last week by Republican Sens. John Hoeven, of North Dakota, and Bob Corker, of Tennessee, and the Gang of Eight, the measure requires 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, the completion of 700 miles of fencing, towers and deployment of an array of high-tech devices along the U.S.-Mexico border. The Department of Homeland Security would also have to establish a biometric tracking system at the nation’s 30 largest airports. The border-security package would cost about $40 billion during the next decade.
Opponents saw the plan as de facto amnesty and questioned whether the security provisions were realistic.
“The promises of an open and fair process have been as hollow as the promises that this bill is the toughest ever and will end the lawlessness in the future. It’s amnesty first and plainly lacks any mechanism, any commitment, to enforcement,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who led the opposition.
Other Republicans had a different take. They tend to represent states with large and growing Hispanic populations, and they were bowing to political reality. They saw their presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, win only about one-fourth of the Hispanic vote last year and are concerned that constituency is slipping away.
“If someone is going to be here in this country for 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 years, I want them to assimilate,” said Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.
“I want them to have the rights, and more importantly, the responsibilities that come with citizenship.”
Flake was a member of the Gang of Eight, along with Rubio and Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Bob Menendez, D-N.J., Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Lindsay Graham, R-S.C.
Senate supporters had hoped that Thursday’s vote would provide momentum heading to the House, but it wasn’t immediately evident.
Boehner scheduled a July 10 meeting of House Republicans. Finding bipartisan agreement is likely to be tough, since the House Republican caucus is dominated by conservatives unenthusiastic about a path to citizenship.
Material from The Washington Post and The Associated Press
is included in this report.