Alan Gomez and Susan Davis, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate passed a sweeping immigration bill Thursday that would allow the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to become U.S. citizens, overhaul the country's immigration system and spend billions to secure the southwest border with Mexico.
After years of failed attempts, the Senate passed the bill on a 68-32 vote. The bill, drafted by a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight, would represent the biggest change in immigration laws since 1986.
Although Republican leaders in the House of Representatives said they will not the bring the bill up for a vote in that chamber, Thursday's vote represents a historic step forward for President Obama on one of the most important planks of his second-term agenda. Vice President Biden accentuated the milestone by making a rare appearance in the Senate to preside over the vote.
In a statement Thursday, President Obama applauded the Senate for passing the bill. "The bipartisan bill that passed today was a compromise," Obama said. "By definition, nobody got everything they wanted. Not Democrats. Not Republicans. Not me. But the Senate bill is consistent with the key principles for commonsense reform that I - and many others - have repeatedly laid out."
Obama also urged the House to pass the bill. "Now is the time when opponents will try their hardest to pull this bipartisan effort apart so they can stop commonsense reform from becoming a reality. We cannot let that happen," he said.
For the past several decades, the only thing Republicans and Democrats could agree on was that the nation's immigration system was broken. The 1986 law signed by President Ronald Reagan allowed 3 million immigrants to become citizens but did not fulfill its promise of securing the border. Ever since, millions of undocumented immigrants have poured over the porous southwest border, millions more have entered the USA and overstayed their visas with little government oversight, and U.S. business owners have complained that they can't get the workers they need from overseas.
States such as Arizona, Alabama and Georgia began tackling the problem on their own in recent years, passing laws to crack down on unauthorized immigrants. That set up a court battle that was decided when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year in Arizona v. United States that the federal government alone had the right to create immigration laws.
After the 2012 elections, when Mitt Romney garnered only 27% of the Hispanic vote, the Republican Party was open about its need to court that fast-growing electorate. That prompted the creation of the Gang of Eight, which drafted the bill and shepherded it through the Senate.
For Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. - one of the members of the Gang of Eight - the Senate vote could bolster his prospects for a presidential run in 2016. Rubio has said he did not take on immigration for the politics of it but did so because, as the son of Cuban immigrants, he grew up around immigrants and feels its critical to fix the broken system.
"This is not just my story. This is our story," he said Thursday while recounting the difficult road his parents faced as new immigrants in America. "No one should dispute that, like every sovereign nation, we have a right to control who comes in. But unlike other countries, we are not afraid of people coming in from other places."
For Democratic senators such as Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey and Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the bill represents the most significant achievement in a decade-long fight to pass an immigration overhaul.
The bill would allow the nation's unauthorized immigrants to get temporary legal status after they passed a criminal background check, paid a fine and paid whatever back taxes they had outstanding. If they successfully maintained a clean record and held a job, they could apply for a green card in 10 years and U.S. citizenship three years later.
That "pathway to citizenship" was key for Democrats pushing the bill. Republicans demanded the bill include more manpower and money to secure the border. In an amendment brokered by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the government would spend $30 billion to double the size of the Border Patrol to nearly 40,000 agents. An additional $8 billion would be spent on drones, helicopters, airplanes and surveillance technology to better monitor the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
The bill would expand the federal E-Verify program nationwide, requiring all U.S. business owners to use it to check the immigration status of all new hires within four years. Another amendment by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would require the United States to begin fingerprinting all foreigners departing U.S. airports to better track who's left the country and who has stayed past the expiration of their visas.
The bill would revamp the legal immigration system to increase the number of temporary work visas for foreigners trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There would also be an increase in work visas for foreigners who work in the agricultural industry, and a new class of visa would be created to bring in people to work lower-skilled jobs in construction, retail, hospitality and insurance.
Several Republicans worried that unauthorized immigrants would get "amnesty," despite claims from bill sponsors that they would have to endure a long, costly process to get legal status. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, argued that it's unfair to immigrants who have waited for years in the legal immigration process to enter the USA.
Other Republicans voted against the bill largely because it doesn't requires proof that the border is secure.
Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, tried to amend the bill to require that some measure of border security be achieved before the nation's unauthorized could start applying for a green card. Cornyn's amendment would have required the government to certify that it caught or turned back 90% of immigrants trying to cross illegally. The bill would establish the 90% figure only as a goal.
The defeat of Cornyn's amendment led Cruz and others to vote against the final bill.
"This, to me, continues to be the biggest hurdle to reform," Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate's top Republican, said on the Senate floor Thursday. "I can't understand why there's such resistance to it. It seems pretty obvious to me, and I suspect to most Americans, that the first part of immigration reform should be proof that the border is secure. Until they do, I for one just can't be confident that we've solved the problem."