July 23, 2016

Mostly sunny

U.S. Senate passes immigration bill

The Senate on Thursday voted 68-32 to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, an ambitious plan that creates a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants while requiring tough new steps to secure the nation’s borders.

The measure, the most sweeping changes to immigration law since the 1980s, now faces a perilous path in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner, R-West Chester, said flatly: “The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes. We’re going to do our own bill.”

Though the outcome of the vote was long known, Senate leaders created fresh drama by having members take the unusual step of voting in their seats, a practice reserved for only the most momentous occasions. One by one, senators rose from their seats to declare their votes, as a packed Senate gallery looked on, including an entire section of college students and parents wearing bright blue “United We Dream” T-shirts.

The Senate vote was a robust endorsement to a thousand-page bill painstakingly crafted by a “Gang of Eight” senators from both parties and amended this week to bring in some skeptics. Fourteen Republicans joined 52 Democrats and two independents in voting yes Thursday, while 32 Republicans voted no.

Under the legislation, employers would have to check on a potential employee’s legal status, and the number of visas available for skilled worked needed by the technology industry would be increased.

The measure would create a 13-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. Those eligible could first apply for Registered Provisional Immigrant status, and achieve that status if they pass a background check, have not been convicted of a serious crime, pay any taxes owed and pay a $500 fine. The registration would be valid for six years, allowing the immigrants to work and travel. After that time, the status could be renewed, as long as the same conditions are met. They also would have to show they had been regularly employed and had sufficient financial resources.

After 10 years, the status could again be adjusted. Immigrants would have to meet new requirements, including proficiency in English and a new $1,000 fine. Three years after that, in most cases, they could achieve citizenship.

Before green cards are issued to those with provisional legal status, though, five security-related conditions would need to be met.

Senate supporters had hoped that Thursday’s vote would provide momentum heading to the House, but it wasn’t immediately evident.

Boehner scheduled a July 10 meeting of House Republicans to plot the way forward. Finding bipartisan agreement is likely to be tough, since the House Republican caucus is dominated by conservatives unenthusiastic about a sweeping path to citizenship.

House Republican immigration writers have expressed a desire to present a series of bills, rather than a single comprehensive approach. The thinking is that allowing representatives to vote on several measures would make it easier to pass tough border security measures without forcing skeptical members to back a path to citizenship.

It remained unclear how much sentiment existed for any kind of program that could bring millions of undocumented immigrants to legal status.