Senate Moves Toward Passage of Landmark Immigration Bill

PHOTO: An immigration activist holds up a sign on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol during an All In for Citizenship rally April 10, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.Alex Wong/Getty Images
An immigration activist holds up a sign on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol during an All In for Citizenship rally April 10, 2013 on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

The Senate's immigration bill cleared a key procedural hurdle on Thursday, making it almost certain that the body will pass the historic piece of legislation.

If it becomes law, the bill would ramp up security measures on the U.S.-Mexico border while granting a pathway to citizenship for up to 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the the U.S. The Senate voted 68-32 to cut off debate on the bill, the last step before lawmakers vote on final passage, which is expected to take place at 4 PM this afternoon.

"Everyone knows we're poised to pass a historic immigration bill," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor Thursday morning. "It's landmark legislation that will secure our borders and help 11 million people get right with the law."

For years, immigrant-rights groups have called on Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws. Those calls increased after the last year's election. President Obama claimed over seven in ten Latino votes last year despite the fact his administration has overseen record levels of deportations, which have separated nearly 250,000 families in two years.

Around 60 immigrant activists donning t-shirts that read "11 Million Dreams" looked on from the gallery of the Senate chamber as senators cast their votes.

The bill's supporters have hoped that a large bipartisan majority for the bill would spark the House of Representatives to act. Fourteen Republicans joined all Democrats in voting to advance the legislation.

But the bill faces a dubious future in the Republican-controlled body, where many GOP lawmakers oppose legalizing undocumented immigrants.

"The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes. We're going to do our own bill, in regular order," House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at a press conference on Thursday. "It's going to have to be a bill that has the support of the majority of our members."

Instead, the House is weighing a series of bills that address individual parts of immigration law.

The House Judiciary Committee has passed a strict enforcement-only bill that would make it a federal crime to be present in the U.S. without legal documentation. It's also considering proposals that would make it mandatory for employers to screen the immigration status of potential employees, something the Senate bill also does, and create an agricultural guest-worker program.

The Senate bill has already undergone a number of changes in order to attract more Republican support for the proposal. A provision that would spend around $30 billion doubling the size of the border patrol and completing 700 miles of border fence was added to the package.

But Republicans who were considering voting on the bill didn't get everything they wanted. An amendment proposed by Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) would have strengthened the E-Verify system that is used to check the immigration status of workers. But senators couldn't agree to hold a vote and Portman had said he can't vote yes on the bill without that language.

Even supporters of the Senate bill concede that if Congress is to pass immigration reform, it could look significantly different than the upper chamber's proposal.

"My sense is that [the House] will not take up this bill, they will take up their own bill," Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) said on the Senate floor.