A comprehensive immigration reform package passed its first hurdle on Tuesday as the Senate voted 82-15 to begin debate on legislation.
Before the vote, President Obama called on lawmakers to put partisanship aside and pass the 1,000-page bill, a package proposed by a bipartisan group of senators known as the Gang of Eight. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are expected to offer amendments in the coming weeks.
“And I’m sure the bill will go through a few more changes in the weeks to come,” Obama said. “But this much is clear: if you genuinely believe we need to fix our broken immigration system, there’s no good reason to stand in the way of this bill.”
The bill provides a pathway to citizenship for many of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, but even Obama admitted that the pathway is “arduous” and “no cakewalk.” Applicants will be expected to learn English, pay taxes and a penalty and then “go to the back of the line,” the president said.
The pathway to citizenship would take at least 13 years for many people, but the bill does fast-track a pathway to permanent legal status for undocumented youth, agricultural workers and immigrants with temporary protective status.
A Compromise Bill
On Tuesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) said he would vote to bring the bill to the floor for debate but warned that “major changes” would need to be made to the reform package. McConnell echoed concerns among Republicans that the bill does not provide enough for border security and could allow immigrants who arrived illegally to receive government benefits.
“Doing nothing about a problem we all acknowledge is not a solution, it’s an avoidance strategy,” McConnell said of the government’s “repeated failure” to secure borders.
The immigration reform package provides $6.5 billion of additional border security funding and would increase criminal penalties for smugglers and traffickers. The bill would also expand the use of biometric technology such as fingerprinting to keep track of when foreigners leave the United States.
Obama said his administration has made border security a “top priority” over the past four years. Some Republicans, however, do not want to give immigrants a path to citizenship until they are assured that the border is secure.
“Now, this bill isn’t perfect,” Obama said. “It’s a compromise. And going forward, nobody is going to get everything that they want – not Democrats, not Republicans, not me.”
A Humanitarian Crisis
The immigration reform package is also a major compromise for civil rights and immigrant rights groups.
The bill includes considerable obstacles in the path toward citizenship and automatically excludes too many people based on old or minor crimes and other factors such as employment status, according to analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
The ACLU and other groups are also concerned about bolstering border security, a costly process that they say threatens civil and human rights with intrusive border checkpoints, private detention centers and surveillance technology such as drones.
“This bill would not end the current cruel, costly and inefficient system of detention and deportation or the militarization of the border that has devastated communities on both sides of the border,” said Amy Gottlieb of the American Friends Service Committee’s Immigrant Rights Program.
Human rights groups say that deportations, arrests and detentions along the southern border are contributing to a major humanitarian crisis. A 2011 report by the immigrant rights group No More Deaths documented 30,000 instances of abuse and mistreatment over five years as reported by people who were held in Border Patrol custody.
Since 2010, Border Patrol has claimed the lives of 20 unarmed civilians and no officials have been held responsible for the deaths, according to the AFSC, which supports provisions in the immigration reform package that offer greater oversight and accountability of border enforcement.