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President Barack Obama smiles as he reacts to a buzzing sound from the back of the room as he speaks about immigration reform, Tuesday, June 11, 2013, in the East Room of the White House in Washington. Charles Dharapak/AP/Press Association Images
US Senate

Immigration reform passes crucial hurdle in US Senate

It is hoped the Senate will pass the bill, which provides a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million living illegally in the United States, by the July 4 break.

A LANDMARK IMMIGRATION bill passed a crucial test today in the US Senate, where lawmakers are expected to officially begin consideration of the comprehensive reform backed by President Barack Obama.

After months of initial debate and more than 100 new amendments offered to the underlying legislation, the Senate in an act of broad bipartisanship voted 82-15 to move toward what is expected to be three weeks of contentious floor debate on the bill’s final passage.

“This overwhelming vote, a majority of both parties, starts this bill off on just the right foot,” said Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the Gang of Eight senators — four Democrats and four Republicans — who crafted the 1,076-page measure.

“This bill marks the best chance for a broad bipartisan compromise… that we’ve had in decades,” he added.

A 13-year pathway to citizenship

Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid has said that by the July 4 break he hopes the Senate will pass the bill, which provides a 13-year pathway to citizenship for the more than 11 million living illegally in the United States, tightens border security, and aims to collect back taxes from undocumented workers.

It also would revise programmes for high-tech employees and agriculture workers, require firms to use an e-verify programme that prevents illegal hires and compel those receiving provisional legal status to learn English.

Obama made an outspoken pitch for the bill Tuesday, branding those opposed to it insincere about fixing a badly broken system.

The president has gently pushed the bill from behind the scenes for months, fearing his open support would swell the ranks of conservatives who see the bill as offering amnesty to illegal immigrants and who are determined to kill it.

But as the legislation faced a crucial test vote, Obama waded into the fray, leveraging the political capital on the issue he won during last year’s election campaign, particularly among Hispanic voters.

New border security measures

The president sought to disarm conservative Republicans — even some who support immigration reform — who argue that the bill should not be passed without tough new border security measures.

“If passed, the Senate bill, as currently written and as hitting the floor, would put in place the toughest border enforcement plan that America has ever seen. So nobody’s taking border enforcement lightly,” he said at a White House event.

Obama also took direct aim at the motives of lawmakers who are opposed to the bill.

“If you’re not serious about it, if you think that a broken system is the best America can do, then I guess it makes sense to try to block it,” he said.

“But if you’re actually serious and sincere about fixing a broken system, this is the vehicle to do it, and now is the time to get it done.”

Senator Lindsey Graham, a frequent Obama critic, said “the president’s tone and engagement has been very helpful” to the process.

But he stressed that fellow Republicans in the Senate and House needed to look closely at whether they want to scupper the effort and jeopardize the party’s political future by alienating millions of voters.

“Politically, if the bill fails and Republicans… receive the blame from the eyes of the public for not being practical, I think it makes it virtually impossible for us to win the White House in 2016,” Graham told reporters.

Scepticism remains

Several Republicans remain sceptical of the bill, with Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia vowing to introduce “a whole slew” of amendments.

Republican Senator Ted Cruz acknowledged the measure “is going to pass the Senate, but as written, this bill will not pass the House,” where he said lawmakers remained concerned about a pathway to citizenship for millions of people living in the shadows.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the chamber’s top Republican, sought a balanced tone Tuesday, and voted to proceed to debate on the bill.

But he stressed “there will need to be major changes to this bill if it’s going to become law,” citing Republican calls for mandatory border security triggers before undocumented workers can begin the pathway to citizenship.

The bill will need 60 votes to pass the 100-seat Senate, and then face an uncertain fate in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner has pledged to begin debate on immigration legislation this month.

- © AFP, 2013

Read: Immigration reform set to pass first hurdle in US Senate – so what’s in it?

Read: Immigration law would end ‘hardship and uncertainty’ for undocumented Irish
Read: Six in 10 Americans support citizenship path for illegals
Read: Prospects of undocumented Irish in US boosted by Obama speech, says Tánaiste

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