WASHINGTON — The Senate last week advanced the most far-reaching changes to immigration law in more than 25 years, passing a bill that would grant millions of residents in the country illegally the chance to achieve U.S. citizenship.
Senators voted 68-32 for the comprehensive bill that would establish a 13-year path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people living here illegally.
Legalization would be coupled with the authorization of $46 billion to essentially lock down the border with Mexico to stem new arrivals.
The bill that counted more than 1,000 pages also would revamp the U.S. visa system to discourage visitors from overstaying, and to require companies to use an E-Verify electronic system to check the legal status of new hires.
It also would raise the cap on visas for high-skilled workers sought by companies in need of employees with advanced degrees in science, engineering or math earned at a U.S. school.
Supporters said the bill represented the fairest and most humane way to deal with people who have put down roots in the United States and realistically cannot be made to leave.
“This legislation is tough but also fair,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “And above all else, it is practical. It makes unprecedented investments in border security. It cracks down on crooked employers, who exploit and abuse immigrant workers.”
Critics complained the strategy was a giveaway to people who broke the law when they entered the country, and it did not do enough to enforce deportation laws already on the books. They also said it would lead to lower wages for low-skilled workers facing job competition from immigrants.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said he doubted the bill would effectively secure the border. “This to me continues to be the biggest hurdle to reform,” he said.
Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., joined Reid in voting for the bill.
Final passage was greased when senators adopted an amendment that would double the number of border agents to 40,000, require the construction of a 700-mile long border fence and install advanced surveillance equipment along the Southwest region.
Senators voted 67-27 for what was dubbed the “border surge,” likening it to the floods of U.S. troops that were dispatched to Iraq and Afghanistan in bids to win wars in those countries.
The amendment was seen as key to attracting Republican support for the immigration bill, although some GOP senators remained unpersuaded.
“Throwing more money at the problem without results doesn’t make sense,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa. “There’s no guarantee the money will be used or the programs implemented.”
Heller and Reid voted for the “border surge.”
Contact Stephens Washington Bureau Chief Steve Tetreault at email@example.com or 202-783-1760. Follow him on Twitter @STetreaultDC.