The U.S. Senate easily passed a monumental immigration-reform bill Thursday without the votes of Georgia’s senators and with a stern warning from the U.S. House that it has no plans to follow the Senate’s footsteps.
The 68-32 vote represented a major step step toward the first immigration overhaul since 1986, on a massive bill carefully crafted over months to try to satisfy the disparate interests of labor, business and senators from both parties.
“This bill is the right thing to do, top to bottom,” said Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., one of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” negotiators. “It has more deficit reduction than our best deficit-reducing packages; it will stimulate the economy more than any stimulus bill; and it will make the border more secure than it has ever been in our history.”
But House Speaker John Boehner vowed Thursday not to bring up the Senate bill, instead working through smaller immigration bills one at a time — and only agreeing to those that have the support of the majority of his Republican caucus.
That puts in serious doubt the bill’s 13-year path to citizenship for immigrants here illegally, and makes any agreement between the Republican House and Democratic Senate a long shot.
“For any legislation – including a (House-Senate) conference report – to pass the House, it’s going to have to be a bill that has the support of a majority of our (Republican) members,” Boehner said at a news conference.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, said he hoped the House could rectify some of the problems he saw in the Senate bill. One loophole he feared was the legalization continuing unimpeded even if the border security initiatives were held up in court.
“What you really need, and what I heard from most Georgians and most all people I talk to about this issue, they want to make sure the border is secure so the flow of illegal aliens into this country stops,” Isakson said in a floor speech.
Georgia Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss was wooed aggressively as the Gang of Eight tried to run up the score on the final vote. But he balked at the bill when his desired changes to the agriculture guest-worker program were denied, in part for fear they could upset an agreement struck by farmworkers’ unions and growers.
“The sanctity of a deal has been given precedence over sound policy,” Chambliss said.
Senators voted from their seats, a move reserved for the most important bills, and Vice President Joseph Biden made a rare appearance in the presiding chair. After Biden announced the final tally, spectators in the gallery cheered: “Yes we can!”
Georgia House Republican foes of the Senate bill accuse supporters of overwrought heartstring-tugging, contending that “comprehensive immigration reform” has become shorthand for “pathway to citizenship.”
Rep. Doug Collins, R-Gainesville, serves on the House Judiciary Committee, which so far has moved bills to create a national employer E-Verify system, add more border security and revise the agricultural guest worker program.
As for what to do about immigrants living here illegally, Collins said, “That’s left to be determined.”
Lawrenceville Republican Rep. Rob Woodall said the piece-by-piece approach in the House is more appropriate.
“How large the scope of the House effort will ultimately be, I don’t know,” Woodall said. “But what I have learned in two-and-a-half years (in office) is focus on things we agree on like the problem of legal immigration, like the need for border security, like the importance of a good entry-exit system, like the importance of having access to workers for American companies.”
Rep. David Scott, an Atlanta Democrat, said the Senate bill is a “good move” that addresses all those problems at once. He said House Republicans’ internal strife — laid bare last week in the failed Farm Bill vote — shows the challenge of pushing any immigration package through.
“There is a leadership struggle within the House of Representatives,” Scott said. “That’s what’s going to determine this. There are great divisions.”
Chambliss and Isakson came under intense pressure from constituents back home in the months leading up to the vote. Activists on all sides of the debate marched around the state Capitol, demonstrated outside their Atlanta offices, called them and sent them letters. Leading up to a key amendment vote Monday, Isakson’s office got 4,900 phone calls — a single-day record.
Miriam Zuniga, who was illegally brought to the U.S. from Mexico as a young child, said she was grateful of the Senate bill’s passage. The 22-year-old Buford resident is preparing to start college in the fall and is considering going into a career in politics.
“I’m really hopeful it will pass (the House) so I can become a resident and later on a citizen so I can be able to travel and do my civic duty as a person who has lived here,” said Zuniga, who received a two-year reprieve from deportation in December. “I consider myself American. I have lived here most of my life.”
Meanwhile, Judy Craft, an activist from Peachtree Corners, is hoping the House will stop the legislation.
“Why in the world would we do this when we have so many Americans who are unemployed?” said Craft, a member of the Dustin Inman Society, which supports enforcing federal immigration laws.
“We have failed to enforce laws and we have failed to secure the border. And why would we trust that could be done now when they haven’t done it in the past?”