Senate Passes Historic Immigration Reform Bill

The US Senate voted to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill today. But the legislation faces an uphill battle in the House.

By Seth Freed Wessler Jun 27, 2013

The US Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill this afternoon that promises a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, a significant reworking of the legal immigration system and billions of dollars of new investment in enforcement on the border and interior of the US. With 68 Senators voring in support of the bill, the Senate brings the country closer than it’s been in thirty years to a legalization program for undocumented immigrants. 

As the bill passed, chants of "yes we can," emerged from immigration reform supporters gathered in the gallery.  Senators shook hands on the Senate floor.

But the ultimate fate of immigration reform is in no way certain. The "Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act of 2013" passed with the full support of Democrats and the votes of 14 Republicans. The reform debate now moves squarely to the GOP-controlled House. Whether lawmakers in the lower chamber will support a bill that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants remains a glaring and immediate question.

"The finish line is very close to here, down this very long hallway, in the House of Representatives," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said today on the floor.

The House begins its immigration reform process with an already conservative Senate bill as a starting place.  The Senate legislation moved significantly to the right earlier this week as the bipartisan Gang of Eight Senators that drafted the legislation agreed to a Republican-proposed investment of billions of dollars in additional border security measures, including doubling the number of guards on the US-Mexico border to 40,000 and building 700 miles of fencing and walls.  The bill would also buy additional drones and other military technology for the region.

"We have practically militarized the border," Sen. Lindsay Graham, R, S.C., who was among the leading members of the Gang of Eight, told Politico.

Ultimately, Democrats in the Senate willingly agreed to the enforcement provisions in an attempt to garner significant Republican support. And though many immigrant rights advocacy groups and border-region organizations strongly opposed the expanded enforcement, most maintained public support for the overall bill to reach a clear path to legalization. Under the bill, undocumented immigrants who can pay fees and pass background checks will be able to apply for citizenship after a decade in a provisional immigration status and three more years with a green card.

The bill also includes a broad version of the DREAM Act, to provide an expedited path to citizenship for immigrants who came to the country as minors. It includes provisions that would allow deportees with US citizen children, spouses, and parents in the US to apply to return to reunite with their families.  And in addition to creating avenues for legal immigration for those already here, the bill provides millions of new immigrant visas, both through additional work-based immigration programs and a decade-long process of clearing existing family and employment based visa backlogs.  After those backlogs are cleared, the bill implements a news system for legal immigration based on "merit." Fewer people would be allowed to immigrate on the basis of their family ties to the US.

The House Judiciary committee is currently considering piece-by-piece immigration bills to grow enforcement and broaden employment-based immigration. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee considered two bills, one on agricultural workers and another to make it a federal criminal offense to live without legal authorization in the US.  The latter of the two bills has little chance of gaining Democratic support, but sets a tone for the chamber’s approach to reform that does not bode well for the chances of compromise. Today the committee considered a bill on so-called high-skilled immigration.

The House and Senate now leave for the Fourth of July recess.  Immigration reform deliberations will begin again when they return.