WASHINGTON -- With an overwhelming vote, the Senate agreed Tuesday to launch a debate on an overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, as President Obama called on Congress to pass legislation “that is the best chance we’ve had in years to fix our broken immigration system.”
However, the 82-15 vote to start the intense congressional battle, which is expected to continue through the month in the Senate, does not necessarily predict the final outcome in that chamber. At the same time, momentum from the Senate could motivate reluctant House Republicans to act -- or they could remain on the sidelines.
Border security remains a sticking point for Republicans, as it was during the last attempt at immigration overhaul six years ago, an effort that failed.
Republicans in both chambers want to tighten control of the border with Mexico before an estimated 11 million people in the country illegally can finish a proposed 10-year route to legal status.
The Senate's No. 2 Republican, John Cornyn of Texas, said he wants to require secure borders before green cards are issued for those who entered the country illegally or overstayed visas; Democrats argue that idea is a “poison pill” that will keep immigrants in limbo beyond what is already a decade-long wait.
“You got to give people a sense of certainty that they go through all these sacrifices, do all this, that there’s at the end of the horizon, the opportunity -- not the guarantee, but the opportunity -- to be part of this American family,” Obama said. “And by the way, a majority of Americans support this idea.”
Deciding how to secure the border and determining when it can be considered guarded has long been a subjective pursuit that has vexed lawmakers and law enforcement.
The legislation provides $4.5 billion for more drones, manpower and double-layer fencing on the U.S.-Mexico border during its first five years in effect, and some sectors of the border are already close to achieving the bill’s goal of turning back 90% of illegal crossings. Other regions, though, are less secure, and an additional $2 billion would be available in subsequent years, if needed.
Under the bill, immigrants would be allowed to transition to provisional status within six months of the bill becoming law if a new plan for border security and fencing is in place. After 10 years, if the border plan is “operational,” most immigrants in good standing would be able to transition to green cards. After 13 years, they could become citizens.
“If we don’t guarantee results on border security, if we don’t guarantee to the American people that we actually are going to get serious about stopping the flow of people illegally crossing our Northwestern or Southwestern border, that is the real poison pill,” Cornyn said Tuesday.Trying to bridge the divide in the GOP is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, perhaps the most crucial member of a group of four Democratic and four Republican senators crafting the overhaul. He has been working on his own border security measure.
“I understand many in the Democratic Party and the advocate community for immigrants are asking for certainty in the green-card process, but I also think we need to have certainty on the border process,” Rubio said Tuesday. “And so we need to do both.”
The bill is the most ambitious attempt by Congress to overhaul the immigration laws in a generation, and has gained momentum in a political environment where Republicans and Democrats both want to court the growing Latino vote.
The legislation is expected to be the subject of a robust debate in the weeks ahead, with a final vote seen by the end of the month. New television ads in support of the bill were launched Tuesday by a powerful labor union, the SEIU, while the conservative Heritage Foundation urged senators to vote against it, warning immigrants who gain legal status would be a drain on the government.
Along with increased border security and the path to citizenship, the bill attempts to stem the future flow of illegal crossings by creating guest-worker programs for low- and high-skilled labor, and requiring all businesses to verify the legal status of new employees.
Under the measure, once immigrants who are already here undergo background checks and pay fines and fees, they can gain provisional status that allows them work permits.
“This is no cake walk,” Obama said Tuesday from the East Room, surrounded by law enforcement personnel -- including former Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton -- business leaders and union officials who back the effort.
Even if the border security provisions can be resolved, other possible amendments remain, including those to require immigrants to pay back taxes on under-the-table jobs and to bar green-card holders from receiving certain tax credits, such as those available to low-income Americans under the new healthcare law.