The Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill on Thursday afternoon, after a recently hashed-out compromise on border security helped persuade a total of 14 Republicans to vote for the measure. The bill, which passed 68-32, could face a steep uphill climb in the Republican-controlled House.
The vote brings Congress a step closer to passing its first major immigration reform since the 1986 amnesty bill that legalized more than 3 million immigrants under President Ronald Reagan.
Moments before the vote, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said on the Senate floor that the "historic legislation recognizes that today's immigrants came for the right reason, the same reason as the generations before them ... the right to live in a land that's free."
Republican Chuck Grassley of Iowa spoke against the measure on the floor, arguing that it does not do enough to increase interior immigration enforcement. "The bill won't ensure that a future Congress isn't back here in 25 years dealing with the very same problems," Grassley said.
The "Gang of Eight," a bipartisan group of senators who drafted the bill, had hoped to get 70 out of 100 senators to vote to pass the bill and send a strong signal to the House that the legislation is bipartisan. The bill fell just two votes short of that goal. Republican Sens. Lamar Alexander, Kelly Ayotte, Jeffrey Chiesa, Susan Collins, Bob Corker, Jeff Flake, Lindsey Graham, Orrin Hatch, Dean Heller, John Hoeven, Mark Kirk, John McCain, Lisa Murkowski and Marco Rubio joined the entire Democratic caucus in voting for the measure.
The reform will implement a mandatory, national employment verification system; allow for more legal immigration of low- and high-skilled workers; beef up border security; and eventually give green cards to most of the nation's 11 million unauthorized immigrants who pass background checks and pay fines.
The bill has moved to the right in the Senate on border security, thanks to an amendment adopted last week that will double the number of Border Patrol officers and increase fencing on the southern border by hundreds of miles before any unauthorized immigrants are offered permanent legal status.
But House members working on their own version of immigration reform told The Hill this is not enough: They would prefer that no unauthorized immigrant be offered even temporary legal status until all the border security measures of the bill are fully implemented. Republican Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam told reporters Thursday the bill is a "pipe dream" that will never pass the House.
Union leaders representing both Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers say they oppose the bill, and groups that seek lower immigration levels have tried to rally members to call and write senators asking them to kill the bill. But so far, the critics of the bill have been outnumbered.
Rubio, of Florida, has worked as a conservative ambassador for the legislation. Rubio highlighted his immigrant parents' journey to the United States in a speech on the floor on Thursday. "Here, in America, generations of unfulfilled dreams will finally come to pass," he said.