WASHINGTON — With crowds of immigrants watching from the gallery above, the Senate passed a historic bill Thursday that includes a “pathway to citizenship” for millions of individuals living illegally in the U.S. while also strengthening enforcement along the country’s border with Mexico.
The Senate voted 68-32 to approve the most significant overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws in a generation, handing reform advocates and President Obama a major initial victory. But the more difficult road still lies ahead in the House, where Republicans appear less inclined to help illegal immigrants gain citizenship in the U.S.
“The pressure is now on them,” said Maine Sen. Angus King, an independent who joined all 52 Democrats, 14 Republicans and another independent in supporting the bill. “This was a historic vote here tonight.”
All 12 senators from New England — including Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire — voted in favor of the bipartisan bill that creates a lengthy “pathway to citizenship” for an estimated 11 million people now residing in the U.S. illegally.
Although critics dismiss the pathway as a form of amnesty, supporters point out that those who want to become citizens must face penalties, pay a hefty fine and demonstrate almost nonstop employment during the 13 years it will take to gain citizenship.
In a key compromise that helped win more Republican support, the bill creates an even more militarized U.S. border with Mexico by requiring 20,000 additional border patrol agents, construction of 700 miles of fencing and the expansion of high-tech surveillance equipment.
The cost of the “border security” components — estimated at $25 billion to $30 billion — caused some frustration on both sides of the aisle. Collins, for instance, said she supported amendments to strengthen the border but called the bill’s provisions “excessive and enormously expensive,” adding that she hopes the House lowers the price “to a more realistic number.”
“On balance, the bill approved in the Senate today will help strengthen the security of our borders and provide a fair way to deal with the millions of people here illegally, and it would ensure that people who followed the rules are not treated in the same way with respect to securing citizenship as those who did not follow the law,” Collins said in a statement.
King said in an interview that the fact that an immigration reform bill received 68 votes sends “a very important message that bipartisanship is not dead.”
In recognition of the significance of the issue, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada asked that all 100 senators be seated at their desks for the 4 p.m. vote. During roll call votes that last 15 minutes or longer, senators normally wander on and off the floor, often socializing the entire time.
The galleries above the Senate floor were filled with immigrants and reform advocates, some of whom began chanting “Yes we can!” after Vice President Joe Biden announced the vote results. They were quickly hushed by security.
Obama issued a statement praising the vote but urging supporters to continue pushing for reform as the action heads to the Republican-controlled House.
Much of the debate leading up to Thursday’s vote had focused on the country’s southern border and the immigration issues felt more acutely in southern and western states. But immigration advocacy groups in Maine have been closely monitoring and lobbying on the bill.
Susan Roche, interim executive director of the Immigrant Legal Advocacy Project, a Portland organization that provides legal assistance to new arrivals, said the Senate bill makes some improvements to asylum laws.
For instance, the bill would eliminate a requirement that asylum seekers apply within one year of arriving in the U.S., which Roche said can be difficult for individuals often escaping turbulent situations with little money or limited language skills. It also seeks to address a backlog of asylum and immigration cases by directing more resources into the courts and review systems.
“I think it is a very important step toward fixing a broken immigration system and creating a pathway to citizenship,” Roche said.
Other provisions would expand the number of visas available for highly skilled workers; establish a new separate program for lower-skilled workers; admit farm workers under a temporary program; and elevate the importance of education, job skills and youth, rather than family ties, in immigration.
The bill does not go as far as Roche and others in Maine wanted, however.
Dr. Jean Michel Kayumba, a trained physician from Congo who now lives in Portland with his family, was among those pushing for changes that would allow asylum seekers to receive a work visa while their asylum applications are being processed.
Kayumba filed for political asylum in August 2012 and his application is still pending. But he and his wife, who is an engineer, were only granted work permits last month. Prohibited from working without a work authorization permit, the Kayumbas were forced to rely on general assistance money.
“I could have started working and doing something immediately,” said Kayumba, who is now beginning the board authorization process to practice medicine in Maine. “I came in as a highly qualified person proficient in English.”
Sen. King had introduced an amendment that would have allowed asylum seekers to receive work permits, but the amendment — along with more than 100 others — was never considered. Nonetheless, Kayumba was content that the issue was at least put on the table.
“What is encouraging is just to hear that he did put it forth,” said Kayumba, who traveled to Washington earlier this month to discuss the issue with members of Maine’s delegation.
The bill’s opponents inside and outside of the Senate criticized it until the very end.
“We will admit dramatically more people than we ever have in our country’s history at a time when unemployment is high and the Congressional Budget Office has told us that average wages will go down for 12 years, that gross national product per capita will decline for 25-plus years, that unemployment will go up,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., according to The Associated Press. “The amnesty will occur, but the enforcement is not going to occur.”
House Speaker John Boehner said at a news conference that the separate legislation considered in the House must have majority support among Republicans, although he is part of a bipartisan group trying to forge a compromise.
Boehner declined to say if there were circumstances under which he could support a pathway to citizenship, but he made clear that securing the border was a priority, AP reported.
Kevin Miller can be contacted at 317-6256 or at:
On Twitter: @KevinMillerDC