The U.S. Senate on Thursday passed its version of the comprehensive immigration reform bill that would pave the way for citizenship for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country.
The 68-32 vote occurred after the body stopped debate and invoked cloture on the sweeping overhaul bill, S 744, by the bipartisan group of senators called the “Gang of Eight.”
If passed, it would create what supporters of the measure call a “tough but fair” path to legal status and eventual citizenship for the estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants in the country, approximately 1.6 million of whom live in Texas.
Thursday’s dramatic move was facilitated by a vote the Senate took earlier this week that added to the bill the Corker-Hoeven amendment, by Republican Sens. John Hoeven, N.D., and Bob Corker, Tenn. It is believed that the measure’s controversial border enforcement provisions helped convince key Republicans to support the overall bill.
The amendment would mandate 700 miles of pedestrian fencing along the southern border and add about 20,000 more U.S. Border Patrol agents to the region. That would have to happen before immigrants who are in the country illegally could obtain legal or permanent residency status, which is necessary for those whose ultimate goal is U.S. citizenship. The amendment will also require that 90 percent of visa overstays are removed, and that employers across the country enroll in the electronic employment verification program known as E-Verify.
The bill, if passed in its current form, will reduce the deficit over the next 10 years by $197 billion, and by almost $700 billion through 2033, according to analysis by the Congressional Budget Office.
U.S. Sens Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, both Texas Republicans, voted against the measure. Earlier in the week, Cruz said the bill amounted to nothing but amnesty. In his statements on the Senate floor on Thursday, Cornyn said he believed the American people were being misled, referencing the fact that an amendment he filed to add 5,000 Border Patrol agents had been called a “budget buster.”
“Now we find 20,000 Border Patrol being provided for," he said, adding, "I would say I don’t believe that the promises made in this bill will ever be kept. I don’t believe we will ever have 20,000 more Border Patrol.”
A Gang of Eight co-author, U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., defended the bill, calling it a tool that would prevent the future flow of illegal immigration and a life-saving measure for immigrants forced to pay illegal smugglers, known on the border as coyotes. McCain called the coyotes “drug cartel people.”
“They are the most evil people on earth. Thousands have died in the desert,” he said. “They abuse the people they bring up and I won’t go into the details.”
The bill now moves to the House, where members of the GOP-controlled lower chamber are sure to oppose their Senate counterparts on various provisions of the bill or file their own measure.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said on Thursday that any bill that is advanced by the House must have the support of the majority of Republicans and be grounded in “real border security,” according to Politico.
And although diametrically opposed along ideological lines, members of the Texas congressional delegation appear intent on disrupting progress on the comprehensive immigration reform plan.
Those members immediately balked at the added provisions in the Corker-Hoeven amendment, with Democrats calling the requirements draconian and Republicans calling the entire bill an affront to the wishes of the American public.
“Two-thirds of the American people want the border secured before other immigration reforms are implemented. The Senate bill ignores them,” U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, said in a statement. “Most Americans feel that legalizing millions of illegal workers would take jobs away from U.S. citizens. The Senate bill ignores them. Most Americans want to stop illegal immigration. The Senate bill only reduces illegal immigration by 25 percent.”
Border Democrats, who have loathed the border fence since former President George W. Bush signed the Secure Fence Act of 2006, said the new requirements amount to a Soviet-style solution.
“In 1987, Ronald Reagan famously challenged Russia by declaring: ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.’ We object to the Corker-Hoeven Amendment,” U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo; Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville; and Beto O’Rourke, D-El Paso, said in a joint statement. “This amendment will condition a pathway to citizenship on the construction of additional border fencing. As congressmen actually representing communities along the U.S.-Mexico border, and having grown up there ourselves, we believe this amendment is an outrageous assault on border culture."
The trio suggested that those touting the amendment as a national security solution have lost sight of how the criminals responsible for the most recent attacks on this country landed on U.S. soil.
“This wall is not an effective tool in our war on terror. The terrorists who attacked New York City in 2001 did not enter this country through the U.S.-Mexico border,” they said. “The Boston Marathon bombers did not enter this country through the U.S.-Mexico border."
U.S. Rep. Pete Gallego, D-Alpine, whose district also encompasses a large swath of the border, conceded that the amendment was a necessary evil and an essential component to draw the support needed for the bill to pass.
“Members of the U.S. House would be remiss to ignore positive economics, strong public opinion and [the] sound public policy of comprehensive immigration reform," he said in a statement. “Our national values teach us that families should stick together and that hard work, not circumstances, should shape our future."