Senate passes immigration bill, but future prospects are cloudy

Republican Senator from Arizona John McCain (L) and Democratic Senator from New York Chuck Schumer (R) talk with the media outside the Senate chamber after...
Republican Senator from Arizona John McCain (L) and Democratic Senator from New York Chuck Schumer (R) talk with the media outside the Senate chamber after...
Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA

The Senate passed a comprehensive immigration reform bill with bipartisan support on Thursday, the culmination of months of negotiations between Democratic and Republican senators. But their effort faces diminishing prospects in the Republican-led House, where Speaker John Boehner reiterated on Thursday that he would not vote on the Senate’s bill.

The bill passed on a 68-32 vote presided over by Vice President Joe Biden. Every Democratic senator voted “aye” along with 14 Republicans, including the GOP members of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” who negotiated the bill: Marco Rubio of Florida, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona.

“The finish line is very close to here,” Majority Leader Harry Reid said in a speech immediately preceding the vote. “Down this very long hallway to the House of Representatives.”

In an effort to bring more Republicans on board and put pressure on the House to follow their lead, Democrats agreed to back an amendment by GOP senators Bob Corker and John Hoeven adding $38 billion to border security. While its passage brought some Republicans into the fold, it fell just short of reformers’ stated goals of attracting 70 or more votes. And if the goal was to make the House feel compelled to act, they haven’t shown much willingness to do so.

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While Reid said he was “confident” that Congress would follow suit, recent developments have pro-reform lawmakers concerned that House Republican leaders are souring on a broad immigration bill along the Senate’s lines. On Thursday, Boehner set the bar high for a vote on any immigration legislation, saying that it would have to first garner support from a majority of Republicans.

“The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes,” Boehner told reporters. “We’re going to do our own bill through regular order, and it will be legislation that reflects the will of our majority and the will of the American people.”

Few political observers believe there are enough GOP votes in the conservative House, whose members are mostly insulated from Latino voters in safe seats, to pass a bill with a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Recently, the House Judiciary Committee has started work on legislation aimed at criminalizing and deporting undocumented immigrants with help from local authorities, a policy modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070 law, which helped spark a backlash from Latino voters around the country. They could follow through with several smaller bills on high-tech visas and guest workers, but Senate Democrats and Latino groups are unlikely to support anything short of a comprehensive package that includes a citizenship component.

The Senate’s bill includes four main components. First, it would provide limited legal status to undocumented immigrants who register with the government, pay a fine, and pass a background check. It would also give many of them the option to apply for a green card after 10 years and citizenship after 13 if they stay out of legal trouble and learn English. Second, it would crack down on illegal hiring by requiring businesses to check whether their employees are authorized to work using the government’s E-Verify system. Third, it would overhaul the legal immigration system, allowing businesses to hire low-skilled workers for jobs they can demonstrate Americans won’t take and encouraging high-skilled foreign-born graduates to stay in the United States by making it easier to acquire a visa. Finally, the bill would massively expand the nation’s border security apparatus by doubling the border patrol to 40,000 agents, building hundreds of miles of fence, funding a slew of new technology to stop illegal crossings, and instituting a system to track undocumented immigrants who overstay their visas.

These components are all designed to work together as a unit. The legalization and worker visa components are an acknowledgement that existing undocumented immigrants have become a permanent part of the national fabric and that many businesses, especially agriculture, require migrant labor to function. In exchange, the border security and E-verify portions are intended to discourage future illegal entry.

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