WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate approved the most sweeping overhaul to the nation’s immigration laws in decades on a 68-32 vote Thursday.
But the legislation faces much more opposition in the House, where the bill is now headed.
Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., voted in favor of the immigration bill with its so-called “border surge” compromise. Sen. David Vitter, R-La., voted against the measure.
Vitter remains one of the harshest critics of what he calls an “amnesty” bill with potentially empty promises on border security. Many members of the Republican-led House agree with Vitter’s position.
The overall, bipartisan “Gang of Eight” immigration plan involves cracking down on Mexican border security, offering a path to citizenship after more than 10 years and expanding guest worker programs in areas ranging from the sciences to agriculture.
The federal government estimates there are 11 million people living in the country without legal permission.
The border surge compromise requires completing 700 miles of new fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border and eventually doubling the number of border agents from 20,000 to 40,000 patrol agents.
The plan also requires adding an entry-exit tracking system and a mandated E-Verify system for employers to ensure the people they hire are in the U.S. legally.
That agreement led to 14 Senate Republicans backing the bill Thursday, although supporters had hoped to gain a couple more GOP members to reach 70 votes as a stronger sign of bipartisan unity.
Vitter and other Republican opponents have complained that the pathway to citizenship begins before the border enforcement is implemented and that the latter must be in place before addressing legalization of undocumented residents.
“It’s amnesty now, enforcement, maybe, much later,” Vitter said, while also calling it a partial victory for opponents. “On the positive side, bill supporters fell well short of a vote total in the 70s, which they promised, so this has no momentum at all in the House.”
But Landrieu argued the bill “puts unprecedented resources into more robust and smarter border security measures.”
She also said the bill “will bring accountability to those who have entered this country illegally by requiring them to pay taxes and fines, learn English and go to the back of the line before U.S. citizenship is an option.”
“Gang of Eight” member Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he “guarantees” the bill will secure the border. While the border surge helps, McCain said the key is the smart technology investments in adding more unmanned drones, sensors and radar systems to monitor the border.
“This bill will secure the border and anyone who says it doesn’t, doesn’t understand our security needs,” McCain said.
The border surge represents $46 billion in new costs over 10 years, but the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office projected the bill would generate $197 billion in new federal revenues with more people paying taxes and participating in the economy.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said Thursday that the House is working on its own immigration bills. Whatever passes the House would then go into a conference committee with the Senate bill for a compromise to be worked out.
Boehner has said the Senate bill would only be taken up if it had a majority of GOP support in the House, not a majority of the overall House.
In the Louisiana delegation, Reps. Bill Cassidy, R-Baton Rouge; Steve Scalise, R-Jefferson; and John Fleming, R-Minden all have said they oppose the Senate bill.
Cassidy said he prefers a “step-by-step” approach using multiple bills in order to address border security first, rather than adopt the Senate’s more comprehensive legislation.
“Unfortunately, the 1,200-page Senate bill fails to secure the border and properly address the needs of the more than four million people waiting in line to enter our country legally,” Scalise said in a prepared statement. “Real immigration reform must first start with credible solutions and the Senate bill fails to fix the problem.”
Reps. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette, and Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman, said they needed more opportunity to review the Senate bill. But both congressmen argued in favor of seeing the House work on its own legislation.
Boustany said the border surge compromise made the Senate bill “good” on security, but he said he needed to examine the details on the citizenship pathway and the guest worker programs.
“I oppose any amnesty,” Boustany said.
The Senate legislation would provide, once the border security plans are finalized, an avenue for many of those living in the U.S. illegally to obtain “registered provisional immigrant status,” if they have lived in the country continuously since before 2012. They must pass criminal background checks to receive the status and pay a $500 fine. The status allows them to live and work legally in the country but without receiving federal benefits.
After 10 years in provisional status, immigrants could seek a green card and eventually apply for citizenship if they are up-to-date on their income taxes and pay a $1,000 fine, making it about a 13-year process in all. They also must meet work requirements and learn English.
Those brought to the country as children would be able to get green cards in five years and citizenship immediately thereafter.
Earlier Thursday, some immigration reform proponents in Louisiana urged passage of the bill.
Minh Nguyen, executive director of the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association of New Orleans, said the current broken immigration system has torn families apart for years. The Senate bill creates a “road map” for uniting families, he said.
Susan Mary Weishar, of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University in New Orleans, argued that about 25 percent of the reconstruction workers in south Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina were not there legally.
“We simply could not be where we are without that work of undocumented workers, and we will not forget them now,” Weishar said.