WASHINGTON – Tacking a costly plan to secure the border onto the immigration overhaul led to robust Republican support during a key vote Monday, all but assuring passage of the sweeping legislation and its path to citizenship for immigrants later this week.
The 67-27 vote, over the objections of liberals who oppose militarizing the border with Mexico, fulfilled the aim of supporters who sought to build momentum by sending a bill with significant Republican support to the GOP-controlled House.
Republicans in Congress have been deeply divided on this issue, hesitant to support a bill that critics in their party deride as amnesty for the 11 million immigrants living in this country without legal status. The Senate final vote tally could change by week’s end, but the $46-billion border security package drew overwhelming support Monday with 15 Republicans helping to advance the measure by ending a filibuster.
“I realize that no matter what this bill says, as long as the title of it relates to immigration reform, there are going to be people in this body that won’t support,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), an engineer of the so-called “border surge” amendment with Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.)
Monday’s vote was the first in a series that are expected this week as the bill crosses the remaining hurdles in the Senate.
President Obama met with business leaders at the White House earlier Monday as he pressed for his top second-term priority, the most comprehensive overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in a generation.
“All of us I think recognize that now is the time to get comprehensive immigration reform done – one that involves having very strong border security; that makes sure that we're holding employers accountable to follow the rules; one that provides earned citizenship for those 11 million,” Obama said. “It's not a bill that represents everything that I would like to see; it represents a compromise.”
The border "surge” would dramatically change life along the border with 24-hour unarmed drone patrols and twice as many Border Patrol officers – all of it paid for with new taxes on immigrants and their employers.
Critics said lawmakers are simply throwing money at the problem of illegal crossings at a time of budget austerity, especially because 40% of those without legal status did not cross the border but entered on legal visas that have since expired.
The bill expands the exit visa tracking system to all major U.S. airports as a way to better monitor those on expired visas. Future illegal immigration could be limited by the new guest worker programs, including those for agriculture workers and low-skilled maids, landscapers and others, and by requiring all employers to verify the legal status of all new hires.
A top Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, said last week that the Republican surge “reads like a Christmas wish list for Halliburton.” Defense contractors, he added, were surely “high-fiving at the prospect of all the spending.”
Republicans remain deeply divided, leaving the bill’s prospects in the House uncertain.
Six-term Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) argued that the chamber was poised to back legislation that would repeat the mistakes of the last major immigration overhaul in 1986, when President Reagan granted amnesty for those who had immigrated illegally.
“I know first-hand that we screwed up,” Grassley said, “and I was certain that other members in this body could learn from our mistakes.”
All of those measures, and the completion of 700 miles of fence along the border with Mexico, must be in place before immigrants, after 10 years, can gain permanent legal status with green cards. After 13 years they can become citizens.
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