WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday passed a sweeping immigration plan to grant immediate amnesty to more than 11 million illegal aliens residing in the U.S. but critics say it fell short of promised new border control measures.
The bill passed on a 68-32 vote, with 14 Republicans joining all of the chamber’s 52 Democrats and two independents in voting to approve the bill.
Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, a member of the Gang of Eight who helped craft the bill, voted in favor of the measure, as did Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado.
Bennet described the legislation as “the strongest border security bill that’s ever been passed in the U.S. Senate,” however Republican critics said they voted against the bill because it failed to secure the border against a future wave of illegal crossings.
In addition to amnesty and increasing the number of visas issued, the measure authorizes the hiring of 20,000 border patrol agents but does not provide funding for salaries, and limits new fence construction along the 2,000 southern border to 700 miles.
The measure also rolls back a post-September 11 law that required an entry-exit system using biometrics, and instead will rely on biographic data such as photos and dates of birth. The systems will not be used at land border crossings, only at airports and seaports.
“I believe we should have a secure border, it should not be a trade,” Bennet said in a floor speech prior to the vote. “We should have a secure border, we should have a pathway to citizenship, and this bill accomplishes both.”
However, the bill would also grant amnesty to certain lawbreakers including those convicted of drinking and driving, and Bennet blocked an amendment by Republican Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana seeking to deport those convicted of crimes against women and children including rape and sex trafficking.
Vitter called Bennet’s objection “very regrettable.”
Unions representing border enforcement officers opposed the immigration measure saying it puts politics above public safety and would increase illegal border crossings.
“It provides legalization for thousands of dangerous criminals while making it more difficult for our officers to identity public safety and national security threats,” said officials representing immigration services and border patrol unions.
Republican Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said the American people have “been tricked once again” into believing the border will be secured, and called amnesty for criminals “shocking.”
“Why in the world would we extend generosity to people who have shown nothing but contempt for the law?” Cornyn asked.
Added Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas: “Sadly, this bill won’t fix the problem with our immigration system and will only encourage more illegal immigration and human suffering.”
The massive bill numbered more than 1,000 pages when it came to the floor three weeks ago for debate, and although more than 500 amendments were offered to add additional security measures and other fixes, only ten were allowed for consideration. Also excluded was an amendment to toughen immigration enforcement in the interior states.
If the bill passes the House and is signed into law by President Barack Obama, amnesty would begin immediately while border security measures such as fence construction would be put on a ten-year timetable.
Udall said he was speaking for the entire state when he demanded the House immediately pass the Senate measure and said any refusal to do so amounted to “partisanship.”
“Today’s U.S. Senate vote is a historic victory for hardworking Colorado families who demanded that Congress find a tough, but fair, way to strengthen our borders and create a sensible pathway to earned citizenship for the millions living in the shadows,” Udall said.
Republican House Majority Leader John Boehner said the Senate bill will not be brought to the floor for consideration. Instead, the House is expected to consider several individual bills addressing border security issues and clearing bureaucratic red tape in the immigration and guest worker process.
However, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a member of the Gang of Eight, suggested the only choice for the House to consider was amnesty.
“I think a lot of conservatives in the House will drift toward the bill. They can’t throw people into jail. So I think they will be practical in the House,” Graham said.
Democratic Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois was not so optimistic about the bill’s chances in his chamber.
“The House is a very, very different animal,” said Gutierrez, who was on hand for the Senate vote.
“Democrats control the Senate, so they control the agenda, the publicity, the scheduling of votes. None of those things exist in the House of Representatives,” Gutierrez said.
Recently retired Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, also a former Colorado senator, attended the historic vote that was conducted with all members of the chamber present and seated at their respective desks.
After greeting Bennet with a hug and a smile, Salazar showed his solidarity with the bill and the Coloradoan, standing behind him as Vice President Joe Biden presided over the vote.
The gallery erupted into shouts and applause when the votes were tallied, a violation of Senate rules, with young Hispanics wearing “11 million Dreamers” t-shirts shouting “Yes we can! Yes we can!”
Despite being admonished to quiet down or risk being removed from the gallery by the Senate Sergeant at Arms, the crowd continued to cheer as Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa waved to the group in encouragement.
Following the vote, Graham took an unusual jab at former Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo.
“The voices of Tom Tancredo have been overwhelmed by those who want a tough but practical solution,” Graham said.
Tancredo, a staunch supporter of border security, said he was flattered Graham recognized his efforts, but dismissed the slight.
“I would say to Lindsey Graham, don’t go looking to Bob Menendez and Chuck Schumer for advice about what’s good for the Republican Party,” Tancredo said in reference to the Democratic senators from New Jersey and New York who also worked on the legislation.
“At best, the bill is disingenuous,” Tancredo said. “If you voted for the bill, you’re naïve.”
While Graham suggested that the results of Thursday’s vote represented a turning point on immigration for the GOP, the number of Republicans who joined Democrats on Thursday — 14 — was comparable to the 12 Republicans who backed an unsuccessful 2007 attempt at amnesty.
Once illegal immigrants have attained “registered provisional immigrant status,” they will be eligible for benefits including food stamps and Medicaid, which the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated will cost $260 billion over the next decade.
The CBO also estimated the flow of illegal immigration would only be reduced by 25 percent if the Senate measure becomes law.
Bennet’s signature contribution to the omnibus bill was a narrow provision allowing ski resorts to hire more foreign ski and snowboarding instructors.
“For me this all started in Colorado — everywhere I went I heard people talking about how the broken immigration system was affecting them,” Bennet said during a floor speech prior to the vote.
“I would hear the peach growers in Palisade say one thing and the cattle ranchers on the Eastern plains say something else,” Bennet said.
“The immigrant rights community … high tech community or ski resorts, everybody was feeling the pain of a broken immigration system that Washington was refusing to fix, and they had actually given up hope that Washington would fix it,” Bennet said.