The Senate on Thursday passed a sweeping immigration bill that would allow millions of undocumented U.S. residents to seek citizenship, establish temporary guest-worker programs and strengthen border barriers to stem new illegal immigration.
“This is a success for the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said. “This is a success for people who want to participate in the American dream. … It is not only a security plan, but it is a comprehensive plan.”
President Bush, too, welcomed passage of the Senate bill on a 62-36 vote, capping weeks of debate and maneuvering.
Still, the Senate’s action sets up a showdown with the House of Representatives, which last year passed a border security and enforcement-only bill. A core of GOP conservatives adamantly oppose any effort to legalize the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the United States.
Even though the Senate bill passed with 22 Republicans voting in support, some of their House counterparts blasted them as out of touch with everyday concerns.
“We’re the ones that are closest to the people, we’re up for election every two years,” Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa said on CNN. “We know what the Middle America is about. We know what real Americans are about.”
Chris Simcox, president of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a volunteer group patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border, added that the Senate’s bill amounted to amnesty for millions, creating the “attractive nuisance of endless welfare and social programs at the expense of the American taxpayer.”
The bill is undeniably big and expensive and even, in some ways, mysterious.
It includes security measures, such hiring new Border Patrol agents and building 370 miles of triple-layer fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. It includes two separate guest-worker programs, including one that offers 1.5 million undocumented farm workers a shot at eventual U.S. citizenship. It also includes a complicated scheme to provide legal status to many of the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the country.
“This is the most far-reaching immigration reform in our history,” declared Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts. “It strengthens our security, and it reflects our humanity.”
The legal U.S. population would increase by an estimated 8 million people by the year 2016 under the bill’s provisions, the Congressional Budget Office calculates. Estimated federal spending could increase by a total of $118 billion over the next decade, partially offset by additional government revenues of $66 billion.
At the last minute, moreover, the Senate by a 56-41 vote adopted more than 100 pages worth of amendments that few had a chance to read. Most were technical, but they included provisions like one that apparently requires the U.S. government to consult with the Mexican government before constructing additional border fencing.
“It’s very hard to write a complex bill on the Senate floor,” complained Republican Sen. Jon Kyl of Arizona, although “we have exposed a lot of problems on the floor.”
Rewriting the nation’s often ineffective immigration policy has been a stated goal for Bush since he took office. But the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed the tenor of the debate and stalled any movement by Congress until last year.
Bush never forwarded specific legislative language, and until recently the White House was playing a relatively passive role in the debate. The Senate has been embroiled in the issue for months. Following several weeks of committee action, a bill was finally brought to the Senate floor two months ago _ where it then stalled until being revived last week.
Urging senators along all the way have been a variety of agriculture, business and labor groups.
“This legislation takes us one step further to securing America’s ability to compete globally,” said John Engler, president of the National Association of Manufacturers.
Immigrant and civil rights leaders applauded the prospect of citizenship for those now living and working in the United States without legal status.
But representatives of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund said the legislation contained provisions they feared could undercut bilingual programs, increase deportations, shield businesses that ignore labor laws and overturn Supreme Court protections for immigrant detainees. Many of these provisions must now be hammered out in conference.
“What we’re doing is trying to create order out of chaos, because we live in a chaotic world when it comes to immigration,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.
Graham was among the 22 Republican senators to support the bill, while 32 opposed it. Four Democrats opposed the bill; 38 Democrats and one independent voted for it.
Repeatedly, amid the 38-plus amendments considered over the past two weeks, conservatives sought to undercut or revise the bill. They met with only limited success. On Thursday, for instance, senators rejected an amendment by Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama that would have denied the earned income tax credit to undocumented workers who became legal residents and paid taxes.
“I think as time has gone by more and more people have seen that this is a totally flawed bill, they’re getting more and more worried about it,” Sessions said. “It should never, ever become law.”
An amendment by Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., passed 51-47, placing a cap of 650,000 per year on how many non-farm guest workers and family members who can get visas annually.