By Michael Mathes
WASHINGTON (AFP) – After months of wrangling, the U.S. Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly passed its comprehensive immigration reform bill that aims to put 11 million undocumented people on a path to citizenship.
Chants of “Yes we did!” erupted from the public galleries after senators voted 68-32 to approve the landmark legislation, which bolsters border security, revamps legal immigration and requires a 13-year wait before those without papers can apply for citizenship.
President Barack Obama hailed the vote, saying: “Today, with a strong bipartisan vote, the United States Senate delivered for the American people, bringing us a critical step closer to fixing our broken immigration system once and for all.”
Fourteen Republicans joined a unanimous Democratic side in what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid deemed a historic vote, as he took the rare move of calling on members to cast votes from their Senate desks, as Vice President Joe Biden presided over the chamber.
“We’ve taken giant steps forward towards solving our immigration problem today,” an elated Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the four Democrats who crafted the bill with four Republicans in the so-called “Gang of 8,” told reporters immediately after the vote.
The measure now faces a rocky road in the Republican-led House of Representatives, but Schumer and Republican Gang of 8 Senator John McCain made a direct appeal to their colleagues on the other side of the US Capitol: work with us to achieve the most important immigration reform in a quarter century.
“To our friends in the House, we ask for your consideration, and we stand ready to sit down and negotiate with you,” McCain said.
“We may have different views on different aspects of this issue but we should all of us here have the same goal, and that is to take 11 million people out of the shadows, secure our borders, and make sure this is a nation of opportunity and freedom.”
The legislation’s authors spent months crafting the 1,000-plus-page document, which pours $46 billion into border security and other efforts, including electronic employment verification and a modernized entry-exit system.
The bill, which had Obama’s support, was debated for three weeks on the Senate floor and dozens of amendments were added as Republicans squared off against one another over the merits of the legislation.
“It’s been a very tough negotiation,” Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu acknowledged. “It’s not perfect, but it’s balanced.”
Obama has said he hopes to sign immigration reform into law this year, but several House Republicans have said the bill will be dead in the water without significant changes, particularly on border security.
“The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes,” Republican House Speaker John Boehner told reporters, noting that House members would put together their own language for legislation that would work its way through committee and eventually to the floor.
Senator Chuck Grassley, an adamant opponent of the Senate bill, said he wants to eventually agree on a better bill, adding he is counting on the House to pass legislation that is “much more tough.”
“Hopefully I’ll have a vote to send to the president,” Grassley said.