WASHINGTON—Depending on who you ask, the U.S. Senate’s immigration overhaul might be the second coming of the Civil Rights Act, or it might be a repeat of the embattled Affordable Care Act. The bill is likely neither, but that hasn’t stopped members of both parties from using extreme terms to describe the “Gang of Eight” legislation introduced in the Senate more than two months ago.
For better or for worse, on Thursday the full Senate approved the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act, sweeping legislation that includes a revamped visa system, stronger border security and enforcement measures, and a 13-year path to citizenship for the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants.
All 52 Senate Democrats, two independents, and 14 Republicans voted for the bill, which passed 68-32. Sens. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., and John Hoeven, R-N.D., significantly boosted Republican support for the bill last week when they introduced a compromise amendment that strengthened the law’s border security requirements.
Opponents of the legislation say the amendment did nothing to change the sequence of events, which includes legalizing immigrants—who pay a fine, learn English, and pass a background check—before most security requirements are in place.
“I stand here today in support of immigration reform—but this bill is not immigration reform,” said Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah. “It is big government dysfunction, and it is why I cannot support it.”
But many conservative and religious groups lauded the bill as much-needed and welcomed reform.
“The Senate should be commended for accomplishing something we don’t often see: bipartisan cooperation across the ideological spectrum for the common good,” said Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptists Convention. “While this legislation isn’t perfect, it’s clear that our leaders are working toward ‘both/and’ solutions … that both secure our borders and demonstrate compassion for hardworking immigrant families.”
Thursday’s vote marks the culmination of six months of negotiations in the Senate. The bipartisan “Gang of Eight” guided the immigration bill through the drafting and committee processes, uniting four Democrats and four Republicans who agree on little else: Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.).
Last week, the Congressional Budget Office released a report saying the Senate bill would reduce the federal deficit by $197 billion over 10 years, but it also estimated the law would only reduce illegal immigration by 25 percent. That was before the Corker-Hoeven amendment, which beefs up security provisions but also spends a whopping $46 billion doing it—roughly equivalent to the entire 2014 State Department and USAID budget requests.
The final bill includes plans to double patrol agents on the U.S. border with Mexico to 40,000 and supply billions of dollars for 700 miles of fencing, drones, helicopters, and state-of-the-art technology to detect illegal border crossings.
Attention now turns to the Republican-controlled House, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has proclaimed the Senate bill dead on arrival. He also said any immigration reform considered by the House would have to pass the “Hastert rule”—meaning it must have support from a majority of Republicans.
Proponents of the Senate bill came just short of the 70-vote goal they hoped would pressure House Republicans to take up the legislation. In reality, the House was never likely to consider the Senate bill, but the Corker-Hoeven compromise managed to push the legislation toward a more Republican solution. In other words, the two sides will begin farther on the right if the House passes reform and the two chambers have to reconcile the bills.
A bipartisan House group has been working behind the scenes to craft its own version of immigration reform, but that group’s influence was called into question after the leading conservative voice, Raúl Labrador, R-Idaho, dropped out earlier this month.
On Wednesday Labrador told reporters House Democrats have failed to negotiate fairly on a host of issues, including immigration reform and the recently demised farm bill. Labrador is now working directly with the House Judiciary Committee to craft legislation that would be passed in three or four smaller bills, rather than the comprehensive approach the Senate used.
A key sticking point in the House has been how to handle healthcare for illegal immigrants. Democrats want them covered by the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”), but Labrador is trying to find a solution that would require legalized immigrants to purchase their own coverage.
Regardless of whether the House approves several smaller bills or one large one, the House and Senate reforms will have to go to a conference committee to iron out the differences. Labrador said he hopes the two chambers can reach that point by the end of the year.