After two key and highly symbolic procedural votes, the Senate on Tuesday cleared the way for the formal discussion of a comprehensive immigration reform bill that if passed could create a path to legalization and eventual citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who entered the country illegally or have overstayed their visas.
The Senate approved two key motions to get the debate started. Earlier that same day, during a ceremony at the White House, President Barack Obama urged Congress to pass the immigration reform by the end of summer.
The first measure, which required at least 60 votes to block obstruction attempts by detractors, was approved 82-15. The second, which opens the door to the debate, won 84-15.
“The passage of comprehensive immigration reform would be good for national security, it would be good for the economy,” said Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
In the next three weeks, the Senate will debate hundreds of amendments aimed at modifying the immigration bill approved 13-5 by the Senate Judiciary Committee on May 21 following three weeks of debate that added some 136 amendments to the bill now 1,076 pages long.
Reid said he wants the final vote to take place before the July 4th Independence Day holiday.
Among those who voted in favor of the debate were Republicans Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Marco Rubio of Florida, all members of the “Gang of Eight”—the bipartisan group that drafted the bill since January, and presented it in April.
The other Republican senator from Arizona, John McCain, also a member of that group, was not present because he had returned from Germany the night before and had a prior commitment that day in New York, but “if he had been, of course he would have voted in favor,” his office told Efe.
Also voting yes was Republican Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, who explained that he supports discussing amendments to improve the plan because, in his view, the initiative requires “major changes” to become law.
Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn also voted for the debate, but is already promoting an amendment that prioritizes border security before legalization. He wants to increase funding for surveillance on the border and to hire 10,000 more Border Patrol agents.
Among Republicans who voted against the debate are Senators Jeff Sessions and Shelby, both of Alabama, and Ted Cruz, of Texas.
Cruz said he believed it would be approved in the Senate by a substantial margin, but would fail in the House of Representatives without amendments that strengthen it.
Tuesday’s votes were very symbolic because they demonstrated the willingness of both sides of immigration reform to debate the issue.
If approved, it would be the largest U.S. immigration reform effort approved since 1986 when the status of three million undocumented immigrants was legalized.
Hours before the debate in the Senate, Obama urged Congress to pass a “common sense” immigration reform.
“So my administration has done what we can on our own. And to truly deal with this issue, Congress needs to act,” Obama said during a ceremony in the East Room of the White House, accompanied by political, business, labor, religious and public safety leaders, as well as undocumented students who would benefit from the reform.
The initiative establishes strengthening border security; a 13-year period for the legalization and eventual citizenship process for undocumented immigrants; sanctions on companies that knowingly hire workers “without papers”, a “guest workers” program and an increase in “H-1B” visas for highly educated foreigners.
The version that leaves the Senate will have to be harmonized with the version from the House of Representatives, which has not yet been presented. Passage in the House is expected to be even more difficult, and some observers are already predicting efforts there to be a failure,
One of the main points of contention is Republican demands for border security guarantees before any level of legalization is granted.
Republicans Sessions, Cornyn and Charles Grassley (Iowa) have complained that the promoters of the Senate’s bill have not engaged in serious discussions about border security and that the initiative does not guarantee that there will be no future illegal immigration.
Rubio, one of the bill’s backers who is considered key to gaining the support of the Conservatives, said the measure increases funding for resources and personnel on the southern border.
“I refuse to accept the idea that the most powerful country in the world, that put a man on the moon, is unable to enforce our border,” Rubio said.