WASHINGTON, DC - JUNE 20: Sen. Bob Corker (L) (R-TN) and Sen. John Hoeven (R) (ND) discuss their immigration agreement outside the Senate chamber June 20, 2013 in Washington, DC. Corker and Hoeven carved out an agreement designed to fortify border security with the "Group of Eight", a bipartisan group of Senators, that drafted an overhaul of U.S. immigration laws. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 171183448 ORIG FILE ID: 170944253
(Photo: Win McNamee, Getty Images)
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON - The Senate took a major step toward overhauling the nation's immigration laws Monday when it cleared the way for an amendment to bolster border security on a 67-27 vote.
The amendment, crafted by Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., adds nearly 20,000 Border Patrol agents to southwest border with Mexico and keeps the Senate on track to pass the entire bill by the end of the week.
"Having passed this amendment, each step becomes easier," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, a group that supports the bill. "The legislation is on the road to passage."
Daniel Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which opposes the bill, said Americans waking up to the disastrous nature of the bill will fight it to the end. But he conceded that Monday's vote showed it is "stumbling to the finish line."
The road to an immigration overhaul will become even more difficult in the Republican-led House of Representatives, where House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he will not simply take up the Senate bill. Instead, the chamber is working through a series of bills that address different parts of the immigration system, meaning the process could drag on much longer.
The Senate bill was crafted by a bipartisan group of senators, known as the Gang of Eight. It would allow the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship, add billions in manpower, fencing and technology to secure the Southwest border, require all U.S. business owners to use a federal database to check the immigration status of new hires, and revamp the legal immigration system to bring in more high-tech and lower-skilled foreigners on temporary work visas.
The original bill added 3,500 Customs and Border Security officers to screen people crossing the southwest border through ports of entry. The amendment brokered by Hoeven and Corker will add an additional 20,000 Border Patrol agents - double the size of the current force - to stop immigrants from illegally crossing the border in the vast expanses between the ports of entry.
The amendment, which received strong bipartisan support, was designed to satisfy Republicans who fear a repeat of 1986, when Congress last passed a sweeping immigration law. Then, the nation's three million unauthorized immigrants were allowed to get citizenship, but the promises of securing the border were never met, leading to the 11 million unauthorized immigrants in the country today.
Republican opponents spent much of the day Monday speaking out against the bill, saying it misses the mark on border security, will cost many American workers their jobs and lower their wages, and complaining that it is being rushed through the Senate. A group of 14 Republican senators sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid questioning why more amendments aren't being considered.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., said only nine amendments have been voted on, even though more than 300 have been filed.
"(Reid's) goal is to drive the train to passage by this Friday," Sessions said on the floor. "Public policy? Public interest? Beside the point."
Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a member of the Gang of Eight that drafted the bill, said his colleagues have had access to the bill for months, considered more than 100 amendments during five hearings in the Senate Judiciary Committee and had all weekend to review the Hoeven-Corker amendment.
"It is not fair to have the American people believe that somehow this legislation just came on the desk of senators and they're voting in the blind," Menendez said.
Hoeven said he is confident the votes will be there, and that they have put together a responsible compromise that addresses most of the concerns from supporters and critics alike.
"When you have something that has this much impact, you need to get people on board in a bipartisan way to really make it work," he said. "We recognize that some people just aren't going to support the legislation. We understand and respect that. But we're trying to solve the problem we hope in a way that people feel works."
The Senate's vote was a procedural one, where senators voted to end debate on the amendment proposed by Hoeven and Corker. Senators must still vote to formally pass it in the coming days.