WASHINGTON — A sweeping bipartisan plan to overhaul the nation’s immigration system headed to the Senate floor after a key committee approved it Tuesday, but not before tilting the bill to the political right with amendments designed to attract more Republican support.
The centerpiece of the legislation — a 13-year path to citizenship for many of the 11 million people now without legal status — survived intact, setting the stage for what could be the biggest victory in a generation for advocates of immigrant rights.
The vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee was 13-5, boosted by a last-minute deal to increase access to high-tech visas. That change won the support of a Republican senator beyond the two on the committee who had helped draft the bill. All Democrats voted in favor.
Foes of legalizing immigrants already in the country, once the most prominent voices in the immigration debate, are largely losing that battle, as many Republicans decided early on to embrace reform. The issue is key for Latino and minority voters who abandoned the GOP in the last election, and party leaders believe their support of the overhaul will begin to level the field.
“I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to get a bill that we can pass here in the Senate,” said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican minority leader.
As the Senate committee blazed through the last of 300 amendments Tuesday, President Obama was meeting with young people from immigrant families at the White House. Immigration overhaul is the administration’s top second-term priority.
The bill, drafted by four Democrats and four Republicans, would be the most substantial change in immigration law since the 1986 reform under President Reagan, which gave legal status to 3 million people who were in the country unlawfully.
Now the bill heads to the full Senate in June. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to make the legislation the chamber’s priority in a bid to give it some momentum as the House, which is controlled by Republicans, pursues a separate path.
What began a month ago as a 844-page bill includes a complicated series of political trade-offs that have required compromises from both sides of the aisle.
The path to citizenship for people who entered the country illegally or overstayed visas would be available to those who came forward, gained provisional status and continued working. They would also have to pay back taxes, fees and fines and learn English. They could gain permanent legal status with a green card in 10 years and apply for citizenship in 13. The process is half as long for agricultural workers who commit to jobs in the fields and adults who were brought to the country as minors but serve in the military or attend college.
In return, the legislation would provide $4.5 billion for increased border security, including drones and border patrols. A new low-skilled guest worker program would be created for maids, landscapers and others who could enter the country for three-year stints. All employers would be required, within five years, to verify the legal status of their workers.
Many audience members at the five lengthy hearings over the last three weeks have been young adults brought to the U.S. as children. Known as Dreamers after the Dream Act, federal legislation that would give them legal status, they frequently tell compelling stories of their lives in the shadows.
“It is really hard to sit there and hear all these people debate your life,” said Renata Teodoro, 25, who was in the hallway outside the hearing room Tuesday, stopping senators and lobbying them. When she was 6 years old, she walked across the Sonora Desert into California with her mother, Gorete. Her mother was arrested by immigration agents in 2007 and deported to Brazil. The two have been apart ever since.
As the committee debated changes to the bill these past weeks, Teodoro sometimes sat in the hearing room wearing a white T-shirt printed with a photo of her and her mom.
“Some of the other senators say really horrible things,” said Teodoro, who grew up in Boston and was granted a legal work permit in March under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program launched by the Obama administration last year. “For all of us, we tense up. It’s a really tense atmosphere.”
During the debate over the bill, major changes proposed by opponents were thwarted, but others were accepted, threatening the delicate balance reached by the eight senators.
Lining up conservative support, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), a potential presidential hopeful whose work in the bipartisan group gave the bill a push, promised a fight for tougher border security provisions, a warning shot that encouraged the committee to move the bill to the political right.
The committee obliged by adding a new exit visa system at the nation’s busiest international airports to track immigrants as they depart. An estimated 40% of the illegal immigration in U.S. is not from those who enter improperly, but who stay after their visas expire.
The committee also beefed up rules on student visas after the Boston bombing. But it is unclear if the tougher provisions go far enough to satisfy Rubio’s conservative allies on the right, and several senators are likely to a revisit those issues in the full Senate.
At the same time, liberals lost in their drive to allow immigrant gay partners and spouses of U.S. citizens and legal residents to qualify for legal status, as married couples do. A solemn quiet filled the room late Tuesday as Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), the committee chairman, shelved his amendment “with a heavy heart” after senators from the bipartisan group of authors warned it would tank GOP support.
The 11th-hour agreement on the high-skilled visas with Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah proved crucial to gaining the influential Republican senator’s early support, even though it angered labor leaders who are allied with the committee’s Democrats.
Hatch won his battle to triple the number of high-skilled visas available, to 180,000, more quickly than originally proposed, unless the unemployment rate tops 4.5% in those professions. He loosened new rules that the bill would put in place to ensure that American workers were not passed over for foreign labor.
The provisions were popular with big business, which lobbied hard for the changes, but were opposed by labor as harmful to U.S. workers. The president of the powerful AFL-CIO labor union, Richard Trumka, vowed to fight the “unambiguous attacks on American workers” in the full Senate.
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) voted for the changes, but said he may “push further for worker protections on the floor.”
For Democrats, the biggest gain was the bill itself, which includes the path to citizenship that remains crucial for their final support.
The arguments against the citizenship path have grown more muted than six years ago, when Congress last attempted an immigration overhaul. But Republican opponents of the bill, including Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, repeatedly conjured up the specter of the 1986 bill, which they deride for granting amnesty and failing to close the border.
But many Republicans are increasingly looking at immigration as a net positive for the country, as seen when all members of the committee — except Sessions — shot down his amendment that would have capped the overall number of newcomers. Business and religious leaders, particularly evangelicals who are influential among Republicans, have added their voices to those who see the benefits of bringing immigrants into the legal system.
“I want common-sense immigration reform to pass,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a son of Cuban immigrants whose amendment to gut the pathway to citizenship was rejected. He voted against the bill, saying “it doesn’t fix the problem.”
A top Democrat, Sen. Charles E. Schumer of New York, one of the bill’s chief architects, said the legalization program is non-negotiable.
“If we don’t have a path to citizenship, there is no reform,” Schumer said. “That is so against the lady that stands in the harbor of the city I represent,” he said. “You won’t have my vote. You won’t have the vote of a whole lot of people.”