WASHINGTON – After months of wrangling, the Senate passed wide-ranging and bipartisan legislation on Thursday aimed at reforming the nation’s troubled immigration system, but the measure’s fate appears murky as the debate shifts to the more skeptical House.
The legislation, known as the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013, passed in a 68-32 vote with Vice President Joe Biden presiding. Fourteen of the chamber’s 45 Republicans joined all majority Democrats in supporting the bill, which drew a series of emotional floor speeches.
GOP votes came from Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), Jeff Flake (Ariz.), John McCain (Ariz.), Marco Rubio (Fla.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Susan Collins (Maine), John Hoeven (N.D.), Kelly Ayotte (N.H.), Jeff Chiesa (N.J.), Dean Heller (Nev.), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Bob Corker (Tenn.), and Orrin Hatch (Utah).
“No one should dispute that, like every sovereign nation, we have a right to control who comes in,” said Rubio, a member of the so-called Gang of Eight that formulated the proposal. “But unlike other countries, we are not afraid of people coming in from other places. Instead, inspired by our Judeo-Christian principles we Americans have seen the stranger, and invited them in.”
Rubio, the scion of Cuban immigrants viewed as a possible contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, recounted his own parents’ journey to the nation’s shores, maintaining that immigrants come “in search of liberty and freedom, for sure. But often simply looking for jobs to feed their kids and the chance of a better life.”
“Even with all our challenges, we remain the shining city on the hill,” Rubio said. “We are still the hope of the world. Go to our factories and fields. Go to our kitchens and construction sites. Go to the cafeteria of this very Capitol. 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.”
Rubio said he supports the reform effort “not just because I believe in immigrants, but because I believe in America even more.”
But the effort drew plenty of opposition from Rubio’s Republican brethren, particularly because of perceived shortcomings in the provisions dealing with border security. GOP lawmakers, like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), argued that the nation needs to fix its leaky southern border before addressing issues like work visas and providing the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants already within U.S. borders with a path to citizenship.
Sessions characterized the reform bill as “fatally flawed” and accused the Gang of Eight of kowtowing to special interests like organized labor and big business in its formulation.
“The legislation adopted today guarantees three things — immediate amnesty before security, permanent future illegal immigration and a record surge in legal immigration that will reduce wages and increase unemployment,” Sessions said. “There will be no border fence, no border surge, nothing but the same tired illusory promises of future enforcement that will never occur.”
Sessions called the bill “a surrender to lawlessness” and warned that it will “decimate immigration enforcement and erode the constitutional rule of law upon which our national greatness depends.”
“This legislation demonstrates that the governing body in Washington has become severed from the people it is supposed to represent,” he said. “It is a broken promise 1,200 pages long.”
The bill as passed offers illegal immigrants who have resided in the U.S. since Dec. 13, 2011, an opportunity to seek provisional legal status that allows them to work but renders them ineligible for federal benefits. They must pay a penalty, taxes, and a processing fee and can only apply for permanent status after 10 years. A new visa program for low-skilled workers would also be developed.
The action marked the first time the Senate has passed major immigration legislation since 1986. An effort during the administration of President George W. Bush never got out of the starting gate.
Critics said the bill gave short shrift to border enforcement, with some lawmakers insisting that the border be sealed before the other reform measures take effect. That issue was addressed as the result of an amendment from Corker and Hoeven.
Under Corker-Hoeven, five triggers – or goals – must be met before undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. can start on a pathway toward citizenship. The provision hikes border patrol ranks by 20,000 – almost doubling the contingent at a cost of $30 billion — and adds 350 miles of border fencing. It spends $4.5 billion on technical innovations intended to provide security personnel with full situational awareness along the southern border. And it implements an entry-exit visa program to keep tabs on visitors who overextend their stay as well as the so-called e-verify program to make employers aware of a potential worker’s immigration status.
But for many the amendment didn’t go far enough. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, of Kentucky, acknowledged that “these are big problems that need solving,” but that the effort falls short.
“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,” McConnell said. “As others have rightly pointed out, you also can’t be sure that future congresses won’t just reverse whatever assurances we make today about border security in the future.”
The absence of a “firm, results-based border security trigger” means “there’s just no way I can look my constituents in the eye and tell them that today’s assurances won’t become tomorrow’s disappointments,” McConnell said. “Since the bill before us doesn’t include such a trigger, I can’t support it.”
But President Obama, who supported the bill and praised the Senate’s action, said the measure will “establish the most aggressive border security plan in our history.”
“It would offer a pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million individuals who are in this country illegally – a pathway that includes passing a background check, learning English, paying taxes and a penalty, and then going to the back of the line behind everyone who’s playing by the rules and trying to come here legally,” Obama said. “It would modernize the legal immigration system so that it once again reflects our values as a nation and addresses the urgent needs of our time. And it would provide a big boost to our recovery, by shrinking our deficits and growing our economy.”
“Today, the Senate did its job,” he added. “It’s now up to the House to do the same.”
But the House doesn’t appear eager to follow suit. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said the lower chamber will develop its own version of immigration reform – one that will likely focus on enforcement.
“Apparently, some haven’t gotten the message,” Boehner said. “The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes. We’re going to do our own bill, through regular order, and it’ll be legislation that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people. For any legislation – including a conference report – to pass the House, it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our members.”
Boehner indicated that he thought the bill was rushed through the Senate and that any immigration reform bill “has to be grounded in real border security.”
“That’s what the American people believe, and it’s a principle that our majority believes in as well,” he said.