This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON -- Capping months of intense negotiations and debate, the Senate approved a wide-ranging overhaul of the nation's immigration laws on Thursday, including a high-tech "border surge" and long-sought steps to build a pathway to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Missouri's senators split on the 68-32 vote, with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., voting for the landmark bill and U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., opposing it. Both of Illinois' senators -- Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Mark Kirk -- voted for the bill.
Durbin, who has championed the "Dream Act" pathway for undocumented immigrants for a dozen years, hailed approval of the immigration bill as an historic vote. He was one of the Gang of Eight senators who negotiated the original compromise bill, which was later amended.
"For anyone in this chamber who believes this is just another vote, just another political issue, remember the last naturalization ceremony you attended when new Americans, with flags in hand, took the oath and became part of this country," Durbin told fellow senators. "The emotion they felt and the emotion you felt should remind you how historic this moment truly is."
Even though the majority in favor of the bipartisan bill was lopsided, Vice President Joe Biden -- who can only vote to break a Senate tie -- presided over the final vote. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., ended the debate with an emotional plea for action to reform the nation's flawed immigration system. In a bow to the historic significance of the bill, senators took the unusual step of casting their votes from their desks.
Republican opponents, including Blunt, argued that the legislation was complex, expensive, and did not approach border security in a way that would shut off illegal immigration.
"It doesn't put border security first and it doesn't address what I have grown to think of as the other 'border,' which is the hiring desk," Blunt said in a Senate speech. He advocated an approach to grant provisional legal status to undocumented immigrants "only after we get the border secured, rather than doing it before."
But McCaskill said after the vote that she backed the bill "because it dramatically strengthens border security, punishes employers who hire undocumented immigrants, and includes stiff consequences for those who came here illegally — while ensuring they start paying into the system. This plan will also reduce our budget deficit and boost our economy."
McCaskill called on the U.S. House to follow suit and approve comprehensive immigration reform. "Our immigration system is badly broken, and the Senate’s resounding bipartisan approval of a reform bill puts us just one vote away from fixing it," McCaskill said.
The Senate bill would establish what supporters describe as "an accountable path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants"; authorizes numerous actions to secure the U.S.-Mexican border further; calls for a more effective employment verification system to discourage the hiring of unauthorized workers; and creates what advocates consider to be a more logical approach to future legal immigration. The bill also includes what Durbin has called "the strongest version of the Dream Act ever written."
In a statement from Africa, President Barack Obama hailed the Senate action as "bringing us a critical step closer to fixing our broken immigration system once and for all." Obama called the Senate bill "a compromise. By definition, nobody got everything they wanted. Not Democrats. Not Republicans. Not me. But the Senate bill is consistent with the key principles for commonsense reform that I – and many others – have repeatedly laid out."
The vote deeply split Senate Republicans, with 14 GOP senators voting for the bill. Former GOP presidential nominee U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Az., gave one of the most heartfelt speeches in favor of the bill, and likely future Republican contender U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. - the son of Cuban immigrants - made an emotional argument for changes in the immigration system.
Kirk, a moderate Republican on some issues, said he backed the legislation because it creates a "tough but fair" path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and includes provisions to double the size of the border patrol, reform the Visa Waiver Program to include U.S. allies like Poland and expedite citizenship for non-citizens who serve in combat for the U.S. military.
"The American system unlocks human potential faster and better than any other system," Kirk said in a statement after the vote. "We are going to unlock the full American potential of 525,000 people in our state who will build businesses and boost the Illinois economy."
While Blunt contended that the bill's "border surge" provisions involve "throwing a lot of money at a plan and hoping it works," conservative U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., warned Republicans about the potential impact of opposition on their support from Latino Americans.
Blunt predicted that the Senate bill will not pass the House, but he said he hoped senators will be able to "work with the House to find a better solution for long-term immigration reform."
Prospects cloudy in U.S. House
Even though the Senate approved the immigration bill with a large bipartisan majority, its prospects in the Republican-controlled House were unclear.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, told reporters Thursday that "the House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes. We're going to do our own bill ... that reflects the will of our [GOP] majority and the will of the American people."
Instead of the comprehensive approach taken by the Senate, the House Judiciary Committee and other panels are developing narrower bills, most of which deal with border security and stricter enforcement of laws against U.S. firms that knowingly employ illegal workers.
At this point, the House appears unlikely to approve a path to citizenship for many of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, although many Democrats -- including U.S. Reps. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, and Emanuel Cleaver, D-Kansas City -- support such a step. Boehner has said he would only bring bills to the full House that are backed by a majority of the 234 House Republicans.
While many GOP lawmakers say the nation's immigration laws are flawed and need to be fixed, they are critical of parts of the Senate approach. So far, no Republican U.S. House member from Missouri has expressed support for the sort of comprehensive approach taken by the Senate.
"It's a very important issue that has to be addressed. We'll see what the Senate sends to us," said U.S. Rep. Ann Wagner, R-Ballwin, in an interview a few hours before the Senate vote. "I see us in the House taking a much more thoughtful and incremental approach to things."
Wagner, who represents freshman GOP lawmakers in the House Republican leadership meetings, said she "understands the need for reform" and for doing something about undocumented immigrants. "There are 11 million people who are living in the shadows now. We've got to address these issues," Wagner said. She also said the need for a better system of legal immigration and visas for talented foreign researchers is "a huge issue" in her district in St. Louis County, where universities and many high-tech firms support such reforms.
However, Wagner -- who tends to back the GOP leadership on most issues -- said she had problems with the Senate's approach. "I hate when we rush things on such an important topic," she said, complaining that the Senate bill topped 1,500 pages. Wagner said she was concerned about "pet projects of senators" in the bill, as well as "the costs that will be involved."
Brushing aside such complaints, McCaskill called on the House to act: "If they fail to pass their own bill or our bipartisan Senate bill, it will be just the latest example of the failure of the House majority to provide certainty to businesses, or to show any ability to work in a bipartisan, commonsense way to address the real challenges facing our country."
And Obama, in his statement, urged backers of immigration reform to pressure the House to take action. "Now is the time when opponents will try their hardest to pull this bipartisan effort apart so they can stop commonsense reform from becoming a reality. We cannot let that happen," the president said.
"If you’re among the clear majority of Americans who support reform – from CEOs to labor leaders, law enforcement to clergy – reach out to your member of Congress. Tell them to do the right thing."
As for Durbin, he reveled in the Senate approval of provisions similar to his Dream Act after a dozen years of hard work that had come close several times before. "It was 12 years ago when I first introduced the Dream Act to find justice for a teenage girl in Chicago who faced deportation to Korea. Her name is Tereza Lee," Durbin said in Senate remarks.
"Over the years, her plight, and my bill, grew into a national campaign. In the beginning, teenagers in Chicago, afraid of deportation and filled with emotion, waited by my car after events to tell me they were Dreamers and beg for my help. Over time, as their numbers grew, so did their courage. They stood up and declared their love for this country and their determination to stay."