WASHINGTON - The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed a sweeping immigration bill 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.
And while the Republican leadership of the House of Representatives has already indicated the bill will not get 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 Joe Biden accentuated the milestone by making a rare appearance in the Senate to preside over the vote.
"This bill isn't perfect," Obama said during a speech on June 11. "And going forward, nobody is going to get everything that they want - not Democrats, not Republicans, not me. But this is a bill that's largely consistent with the principles that I .. have laid out for common-sense reform. So if you're serious about actually fixing the system, then this is the vehicle to do it."
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 Reagan allowed three million immigrants to become citizens, but did not fulfill its promise of securing the border. Ever since, millions of undocumented immigrants have continued poring over the porous southwest border, millions more have entered the U.S. 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 like 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 Democrats senators like Charles Schumer of New York and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Republican senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsay Graham of South Carolina, the bill represents the most significant achievement in a decade-long fight to pass immigration reform.
The bill allows the nation's unauthorized immigrants to get a temporary legal status after they've passed a criminal background check, paid a fine and paid whatever back taxes they have outstanding. In they successfully maintain a clean record and hold a job, they can then 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. In order to secure that, Republicans demanded the bill include more manpower and money to secure the southwest border. In a critical amendment brokered by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the government will spend $30 billion to double the size of the Border Patrol to nearly 40,000 agents. An additional $8 billion will be spent on drones, helicopters, airplanes and surveillance technology to better monitor the nearly 2,000-mile border with Mexico.
The bill also expands 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, requires the U.S. to begin fingerprinting all foreigners departing U.S. airports in order to better track who's left the country and who has stayed past the expiration of their visas.
The bill also revamps the legal immigration system to increase the number temporary work visas for foreigners trained in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. There is an increase in work visas for foreigners who work in the agricultural industry, and a new class of visa is created to bring in people to work lower-skilled jobs in construction, retail, hospitality and insurance.
Several Republicans worried that unauthorized immigrants were getting "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 U.S.
Other Republicans voted against the bill largely because it never requires proof that the border is secure.
Both senators like Sen. 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 certify that it caught or turned back 90% of immigrants trying to cross illegally. The bill only establishes the 90% figure 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," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., the Senate's top Republican, 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."