The Senate approved a sweeping overhaul of the nation's immigration laws on Thursday that would spend billions more on border security while granting millions of undocumented immigrants a shot at U.S. citizenship.
But as supporters celebrated the rare bipartisan vote on what would be the first major revamping of immigration policy in a generation, many acknowledged that the proposal faces a difficult path in the House of Representatives, where some conservatives predict that the bill has a slim chance at final passage.
The Senate legislation, approved 68-32, would direct $46 billion toward border security over the next decade and set a 13-year path to citizenship for as many as 11 million immigrants, if they have not been convicted of a felony and pay a penalty and back taxes.
The legislation also increases penalties for passport forgery, attempts to limit human trafficking and makes it easier for seafood processors, including those on Maryland's Eastern Shore, to hire seasonal workers from overseas.
"The strong bipartisan vote we took is going to send a message across the country — it's going to send a message to the other end of the Capitol as well," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and one of the original eight senators who crafted the proposal.
"The bill has generated a level of support that we believe will be impossible for the House to ignore," he said.
In an unusual display of formality intended to underscore the significance of the vote, senators sat silently in their seats during the roll call — rising to vote one by one as their names were called. Vice President Joe Biden presided over the session.
Fourteen Republicans joined all Democrats to pass the bill. President Barack Obama, who has made immigration a top priority of his second term, has indicated that he would sign the legislation if it reaches his desk.
"Today, the Senate did its job," Obama said in a statement shortly after the vote. "It's now up to the House to do the same."
Immigrant advocacy groups in Maryland and elsewhere have long expressed reservations about the bill, and criticism grew louder after senators agreed to increase proposed spending on border security. Nevertheless, the groups described the Senate vote Thursday as a significant win.
"It's extraordinary," said Gustavo Torres, executive director of the immigrant advocacy group CASA de Maryland. "This is a total victory for our community."
"The amount of good that the Senate bill does, in our view, makes that bill worth supporting," said Brittney Nystrom, director for advocacy at the Baltimore-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.
But House Republicans are concerned with the central component of the Senate bill: the granting of provisional legal status and ultimately citizenship to immigrants who came to the country illegally. House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said Thursday that he would not advance a bill unless it had the support of a majority of his caucus — a high threshold that leaves the likelihood of any legislation unclear.
"The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes," he said. "We're going to do our own bill."
So far, the House has focused mainly on more limited measures that would, for instance, give states more power to enforce immigration laws and increase the number of visas available to foreigners with advanced degrees in science and engineering.
Several conservatives, including Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, have said they cannot support the Senate bill. "We ultimately would reward with citizenship people who are coming to the country and breaking our laws," Harris said of the bill. "That's going to be a major obstacle to moving comprehensive legislation."
The Senate vote represented a remarkable political shift on the issue. Less than three years ago, with an even wider Democratic majority, the chamber failed to pass a narrower proposal that would have offered citizenship to certain immigrants brought to the U.S. as children and who had enrolled in college or the military.
The turnaround has been driven in large part by last year's presidential election, in which a growing bloc of Hispanic voters threw their support behind Obama's re-election over Republican nominee Mitt Romney. That trend was particularly pronounced in battleground presidential states such as Florida, Arizona and Virginia.
Democrats as well as the minority of Senate Republicans who backed the measure vowed to keep pressure on the House in the weeks ahead.
"To our friends in the House, we ask for your consideration and we stand ready to sit down and negotiate with you," said Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who helped craft the bill. "We may have different views on different aspects of this issue, but we should all ... share the same goal and that is take 11 million people out of the shadows," he said.
Lourdes Ortega, a 23-year-old Baltimore resident who came to the U.S. with her parents when she was 14, said that she was glad the Senate approved such a significant piece of legislation but that her family plans to continue their prayers for an immigration overhaul.
Originally from Ecuador, Ortega said she had been granted deferred action status — a standard formalized under the Obama administration that means immigration officials have agreed not to focus on her case as a priority for deportation.
"If it doesn't pass, we will keep on fighting," Ortega said. "We will be there every week to fight."
In addition to its most high-profile provisions, the legislation also would increase the number of workers that companies can bring in from overseas on temporary visas to provide seasonal work — from 66,000 workers to 264,000. The seafood industry, which relies on those workers to pick crabs and shuck oysters, has sought the change for years.
"That would be great to have something like that," said Jack Brooks, co-owner of J.M. Clayton Seafood Co. in Cambridge. "We just need a good, viable program."
But that measure has been controversial. Some groups, including the National Guestworker Alliance, said the legislation should have added protections for whistle-blowers that the groups say help guard against potential abuse.
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