An overhaul of the nation’s immigration system took a critical step in the U.S. Senate on Monday, as an amendment to spend $38 billion to fortify the Mexican border passed easily.
Chief among many Republicans’ stated opposition to the bill has been border security, and the 67-27 vote signaled that the overall immigration bill could pass the Senate with a big margin by the end of the week. Georgia Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss missed the vote due to weather-related flight delays but said they would have voted no.
The Republican-run House is far more perilous territory for an immigration bill, but proponents hope a big bipartisan vote in the Democrat-controlled Senate could motivate House leaders to act.
The bill would grant immigrants living illegally in the U.S. swift legal status while creating a 13-year potential path to citizenship. It would make it easier for American companies to hire foreign workers and would streamline the legal immigration system.
Alexandra Alor, a Peruvian native and DeKalb County resident who was illegally brought to the United States when she was 7, said she is glad the bill is still moving forward in the Senate. She especially supports the provisions that would create a route to citizenship for immigrants living illegally in the U.S. “The United States is heading in a good direction, if they keep going with this,” said Alor, who received a two-year reprieve from deportation this year.
At the same time, she said the government could find better ways to spend the border-security billions. “All that money that they are wasting on it could actually go to people who need help, not just for immigrants but as well for senior citizens here,” she said.
Isakson and Chambliss issued a joint statement after the vote listing their concerns with the border security amendment and appearing to lean against voting for the final bill.
“While I appreciate and applaud the vast improvements in the border security provisions, I feel there were still too many waivers and other loopholes that could have allowed green cards to be issued before our nation’s borders were truly secured,” Isakson said.
Chambliss criticized Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s “artificial deadline” of the end of the week and said he had “serious concerns with several provisions in the bill.”
Conservative Republicans have formed the bulk of the opposition, expressing concern that passage would reward lawbreakers, embolden more border-crossers and prove to be a burden on the nation’s social safety net.
Phil Kent, a member of Georgia’s Immigration Enforcement Review Board and the spokesman for Americans for Immigration Control, said he hopes Isakson and Chambliss “realize this deceptive bill only promises border security and allows the Department of Homeland Security to waive tough provisions.”
“Let’s hope the senators heed the voices of Georgians opposed to the costly legalization of the illegal immigrants and the resulting depressed worker wages and rise in unemployment,” he said.
Congress’ nonpartisan budget scorekeeper, the Congressional Budget Office, ruled the Senate immigration bill would reduce future budget deficits by $197 billion and provide a boost to the economy. That freed up money – in the theoretical Washington sense – to spend on border security.
Authored by Republicans Bob Corker of Tennessee and John Hoeven of North Dakota, Monday’s amendment more than doubles the number of Border Patrol agents to nearly 40,000, completes 700 miles of border fencing, mandates an electronic visa entry/exit system at all air and sea ports and mandates a nationwide employer E-Verify system. Immigrants who get temporary resident status from the bill could not get a green card until all the border-security conditions are met.
Some Republicans objected to the grab bag of provisions tacked onto Monday’s vote, including a summer jobs program for youth and immigrant labor for Alaskan seafood harvests, that went far beyond border security.
As the Senate continued its heated debate, President Barack Obama on Monday hosted business owners, including Jason Berry of Berry Farms in Vidalia, at the White House in another attempt to rally support for the bill.
“And if we get this done — when we get this done — I think every business leader here feels confident that they’ll be in a stronger position to continue to innovate, to continue to invest, to continue to create jobs, and ensure that this continues to be the land of opportunity for generations to come,” Obama said.
Isakson and Chambliss have been closely watched as swing votes on the immigration bill and have been the subject of intense public and private lobbying campaigns from both sides.
Last week Julie Nguyen, of Atlanta, visited Washington as part of an immigration-overhaul push organized by the women’s advocacy organization 9to5. A naturalized citizen, Nguyen emigrated from Vietnam at age 5 with her parents and now studies social work at Georgia State University.
She was to visit Chambliss, who has announced he will not seek re-election next year.
“We’re hoping to take advantage of that, that hopefully he’ll be a little bit more sympathetic now that he’s decided not to run,” Nguyen said. “Maybe we can tap into any empathy that he has for immigrants right now.”
Tea party groups, meanwhile, have loudly mobilized against the bill, vowing to support a Republican primary opponent against Isakson in 2016 because he voted to begin debate on the bill. At a rally outside the Capitol last week many tea party members booed the name of U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a conservative star who helped write the Senate bill.
Such antagonism is not universal among tea party adherents. Judy Griffin, of Woodstock, who rode in a bus to Washington from Cherokee County to attend a tea party rally against the Internal Revenue Service last week, said the heated immigration debate makes her uneasy.
“That bill unfortunately has caused us to kind of eat ourselves, or eat the people that want to help,” Griffin said. “Rubio wants to do the right thing.”
What’s next for the immigration bill?
Later this week — Senate votes to end debate on the bill and, if there are at least 60 votes to that, will vote then on final passage
The weeks to come — House leaders have said they could take up piecemeal immigration bills, but the outlook remains hazy at best