Senators approved sweeping legislation Thursday to remake the nation's immigration system for the first time in a generation by spending tens of billions of dollars to bolster security along the U.S. southern border and offering a path to citizenship for millions of immigrants in the country illegally.
By a vote of 68-32, senators concluded a nearly monthlong debate of the 1,200-page measure. Fourteen Republicans voted with every member of the Senate Democratic caucus to approve the bill.
To note the significance, Vice President Biden presided over the vote and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) made the unusual request that senators sit at their assigned desks and stand to vote when called.
Supporters, led by the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" who wrote the bill and steered it through the Senate, fell just short of the 70 votes they had hoped for, but the measure got a margin significant for any legislation in the often-divided chamber.
Prospects for passage in the House remain uncertain.
At midday, two key members of the Gang of Eight, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.), said they initially doubted whether their efforts would succeed.
"This is one of the most divisive issues in one of the most divisive congresses," Schumer said. "But you know what? Our Republican guys showed amazing strength."
The vote caps more than six months of tedious and contentious bipartisan negotiations led by the so-called gang of four Democrats and four Republicans from across the country with various political strengths and ties to key interest groups.
If the Senate legislation became law, it would set millions of eligible immigrants on a 13-year course toward achieving permanent residency status or U.S. citizenship, but it would also require them to pay thousands of dollars in fines and back taxes.
At a cost of roughly $30 billion, the legislation would double the number of U.S. Border Patrol agents along the U.S.-Mexico border to roughly 40,000 and require the construction of 700 miles of fencing along the southern border. In addition to a "surge" of border agents, the federal government would be required to begin using military-style technology, including radar and unmanned aerial drones, to track illegal border crossings.
The Department of Homeland Security would be required to establish a biometric tracking system at the nation's 30 largest airports and eventually at border crossings and seaports to catch people attempting to leave the country with overstayed visas.
In an attempt to address the needs of a broad cross-section of the business community that relies on immigrant laborers, the agreement also would increase the number of visas available to high-skilled workers, most of whom work in the fields of science and technology, and lower-skilled people who take jobs in the construction and hospitality industries. Immigrant farm workers would be admitted under a temporary guest worker program.
But the bill also would place new burdens on employers, who would be required to check the legal status of job applicants using the government's E-Verify system.