(MCT) — WASHINGTON — With an overwhelming vote, the Senate on Tuesday launched debate on an ambitious overhaul of the nation’s immigration laws, as Republicans, most of whom have not yet embraced the effort, declined to stand in the way of bringing it to the floor.
But continuing doubts within the GOP about some of the bill’s central elements, particularly on border security, could doom the effort. Republicans in the Senate and House want tighter control of the border with Mexico before the estimated 11 million people who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas would be allowed to gain permanent legal status.
Democrats, who control the narrowly divided Senate, appear to be willing to accept some measures to toughen border security, but not changes that a future president or Congress could use to block the bill’s 13-year route to citizenship. They worry that pursuit of nearly complete control of the southern border, which some Republicans insist is the price of their vote, is an impossible goal that would leave immigrants in legal limbo for the next decade and beyond.
Republicans remain deeply divided about whether to compromise on that point. Only Republicans opposed bringing up the bill in Tuesday’s lopsided 82-15 vote.
Trying to bridge the divide in the Republican Party is Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, perhaps the most critical member of the bipartisan group that wrote the bill. He has been working on his own border security measure to offer as an amendment.
“I understand many in the Democratic Party and the advocate community for immigrants are asking for certainty in the green card process, but I also think we need to have certainty on the border process,” Rubio said Tuesday in the Senate halls. “And so we need to find both.”
To become law, the bill would also have to get through the Republican-controlled House. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, said Tuesday that passing an immigration bill into law would be “at the top” of his chamber’s accomplishments this year. He also hinted that he might be willing to let a bill come to the floor even if most of his GOP caucus does not support it. “My job is — as speaker — is to ensure that all members on both sides have a fair shot at their ideas,” he told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos.
President Barack Obama has touted the overhaul as his top second-term priority. Surrounded by law enforcement, labor and business advocates of immigration reform at the White House on Tuesday, he called on Congress to pass the “common-sense, bipartisan bill that is the best chance we’ve had in years to fix our broken immigration system.”
As the bill is written, immigrants would be allowed to transition to provisional legal status within six months after it becomes law if the Department of Homeland Security has come up with a plan for border security. After 10 years, if the plan is “operational,” most immigrants in good standing would be able to get green cards. After 13 years, they could become citizens.
The legislation provides up to $6.5 billion for more drones, border agents and double-layer fencing across the border with Mexico to try to stop 90 percent of all illegal crossings. Some sectors are well on their way to that goal, while others are less secure. But as the bill is currently written, even if this goal is not achieved, immigrants in the U.S. might still be allowed to become citizens.
“You got to give people a sense of certainty that they go through all these sacrifices, do all this, that there’s at the end of the horizon, the opportunity — not the guarantee, but the opportunity — to be part of this American family,” Obama said.
Many Republicans say that they want to support an immigration measure, but need a guarantee that there will not be a new wave of illegal immigration if they offer a path to citizenship to those who are already in the U.S.
Along with increased border security and the path to citizenship, the bill attempts to prevent illegal crossings by creating guest-worker programs for low- and high-skilled labor and by requiring all businesses to verify the legal status of new employees.
Overcoming the differences among Republicans will be key if the legislation clears the Senate and moves to the House, where the conservative majority prefers a more law enforcement-focused approach.
“If we don’t guarantee results on border security, if we don’t guarantee to the American people that we actually are going to get serious about stopping the flow of people illegally crossing our northwestern or southwestern border, that is the real poison pill,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the No. 2 Republican, who has proposed tougher border provisions.
As the Senate began voting Tuesday, the anticipation of an unusually strong bipartisan tally appeared to be gratifying to senators who helped craft the bill. Rubio emerged from the Republican cloakroom with a smile. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., flashed a thumbs-up sign with his vote. When newly appointed Sen. Jeffrey Chiesa, R-N.J., voted yes, Sen. Richard J. Durbin, D-Ill., a key member of the group, crossed the floor to shake his hand.
Still, GOP opposition is likely to swell in the weeks ahead, as those who voted to begin the debate want other changes that Democrats are not eager to make. Among those are one to require immigrants to pay back taxes on under-the-table jobs and another to bar holders of green cards from receiving certain tax credits, including those available to low-income Americans under the new health care law.
Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, offered a gloomy prediction for consensus: “We may not succeed.”
Other Republican ideas, though, are more likely to gain traction. These include requiring businesses to more quickly begin verifying the legal status of all new hires and bolstering the exit system at land ports of entry to improve tracking of those who overstay their visas. Studies show that 40 percent of the immigrants who are here without legal status did not cross illegally but remained after their visas expired.
Rubio has an amendment that would require English “proficiency,” rather than just “knowledge,” before immigrants can gain green cards.
Outside pressure on legislators, meantime, continues to build. The powerful Service Employees International Union launched new television ads in support of the bill Tuesday, while the conservative Heritage Foundation urged senators to defeat it, arguing that immigrants who gain legal status would be a drain on the government.
The Senate halls are increasingly filled with immigrants making the case to senators. Among them are many young adults without legal status who were brought to the U.S. as children. They call themselves Dreamers, after the Dream Act, a once-defeated measure now included as a provision in the bill that would give an expedited path to citizenship to those who join the military or attend college.
(Staff writer Christi Parsons contributed to this report.)