A far-reaching bill to remake the US immigration system is headed to the full US Senate, where tough battles are brewing on gay marriage, border security and other contentious issues, with the outcome impossible to predict.
The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the measure 13-5 on Tuesday night, setting up an epic showdown on the Senate floor after Congress’ Memorial Day holiday recess. The legislation is one of US President Barack Obama’s top domestic priorities — yet it also gives the Republican Party a chance to recast itself as more appealing to minorities.
Many Republicans have come to embrace the idea of immigration reform after nearly 70 percent of Hispanic voters supported Obama in last year’s election, leading to concerns that the party was out of touch with a younger, more diverse country.
Many involved still vividly recall the last time the Senate took up a major immigration bill, in 2007, beginning with high hopes, only to see their efforts collapse on the Senate floor. Some expressed optimism for a better outcome this time around after the Judiciary Committee gave its bipartisan approval.
“We’ve demonstrated to the United States Senate we can all work together, Republicans and Democrats,” said the panel’s chairman, US Senator Patrick Leahy. “Now let’s go out of this room and work together with the other members of the Senate, and with the other body [the House], and more importantly, work with all Americans, and all those who wish to be Americans.”
In a statement, Obama applauded the committee’s action.
The legislation would create new routes for people to come legally to the US to work at all skill levels, tighten border security and workplace enforcement, and offer a chance at citizenship to the 11 million people in the US illegally.
US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said he would bring the legislation to the Senate floor early next month. The fate of immigration legislation in the US House of Representatives was less clear.
It was Leahy’s 11th-hour decision to hold back on an amendment to extend immigration rights to same-sex married couples that cleared the way for the bill’s approval. Until Leahy began speaking on the issue to a hushed hearing room on Tuesday evening, it was not clear how the matter, which had hovered over the three weeks of committee sessions to review the legislation, would play out.
Leahy had been under pressure from gay groups to offer the amendment, which would allow gay married Americans to sponsor their foreign-born spouses for green cards granting permanent residency status like straight married Americans can.
However, Republican supporters of the bill warned that including such a measure would cost their support. As the committee neared the end of its work, officials said Leahy had been informed that both the White House and Senate Democrats hoped he would not risk the destruction of months of painstaking work.
“I don’t want to be the senator who asks people to choose between the love of their life and the love of their country,” Leahy said, adding that he wanted to hear from others on the committee.
In response, he heard a chorus of pleas from the bill’s supporters not to force a vote they warned would lead to the collapse of Republican support and the bill’s demise.