In a vote hailed by US President Barack Obama, the Senate on Thursday passed comprehensive immigration reform that would put 11 million undocumented people on a path to earning citizenship.
Chants of “Yes we did!” erupted from the public galleries after senators voted 68-32 to approve the landmark legislation, which pours unprecedented resources into border security, revamps legal immigration and requires a 13-year wait before those without papers can apply to become US citizens.
Fourteen Republicans joined a unanimous Democratic side in what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid deemed a historic vote.
As Vice President Joe Biden presided over the chamber, Reid took the rare move of calling on members to cast votes from their Senate desks.
“We’ve taken giant steps forward towards solving our immigration problem today,” an elated Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the four Democrats who crafted the bill with four Republicans in the so-called “Gang of 8,” told reporters.
The measure now faces a rocky road in the Republican-led House of Representatives, but Schumer and Republican Gang of 8 Senator John McCain made a direct appeal to their colleagues on the other side of the US Capitol: work with us to achieve the most important immigration reform in a quarter century.
“To our friends in the House, we ask for your consideration, and we stand ready to sit down and negotiate with you,” McCain said.
“We may have different views on different aspects of this issue but we should all of us here have the same goal, and that is to take 11 million people out of the shadows, secure our borders, and make sure this is a nation of opportunity and freedom.”
Obama welcomed the Senate vote and urged the House to follow suit.
“Today, with a strong bipartisan vote, the United States Senate delivered for the American people, bringing us a critical step closer to fixing our broken immigration system once and for all,” Obama said.
But the president warned the bill’s supporters to “keep a watchful eye” on efforts to scupper reform, saying “now is the time when opponents will try their hardest to pull this bipartisan effort apart.”
The bill’s authors spent months crafting the 1,000-plus-page document, which pours US$46 billion into border security and other efforts, including electronic employment verification and a modernized entry-exit system.
It requires immigrants to pass background checks, pay fees, fines and back taxes, learn English, gain employment, and as Reid said, “stay out of trouble.”
The bill was debated for three weeks on the Senate floor and dozens of amendments were added as Republicans squared off against one another over the merits of the legislation.
Obama hopes to sign immigration reform into law this year, but several House Republicans have said the bill will be dead in the water without significant changes, particularly on border security.
“The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner told reporters.
“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.”
Opponents have said the bill is too costly, or argue that loopholes will prevent authorities from gaining full operational control of the border before the citizenship process begins.
“The one thing people are going to be very unhappy with is if they vote for this bill, we document all of these undocumented workers, but then we get 10 million more come into the country,” Senator Rand Paul told AFP.
Shortly before the vote, Senator Marco Rubio, perhaps the legislation’s most forceful advocate and a potential 2016 presidential candidate, made the closing arguments.
Rubio cited his own parents’ flight from Cuba to Florida as reflective of a journey millions of immigrants have taken to a new life in a country whose work ethic, rule of law and opportunity quickly changes them for the better.
“Because well before they became citizens, in their hearts they had already become Americans,” Rubio said.
Mexico welcomed passage of the bill, with the foreign ministry saying in a statement that it had the potential to improve the lives of millions of Mexicans living in the United States.
Earlier this week however Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Meade criticized provisions that would tighten security along the US-Mexico border.
Building more “walls” would not solve the immigration issue, he argued.