Long, bumpy road ahead before Senate votes on major immigration changes

Bill would lead to most sweeping changes in US immigration laws in a generation

US president Barack Obama is surrounded by proponents of new immigration laws as he speaks at a news conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, last  Tuesday. Photograph: Stephen Crowley/New York Times

US president Barack Obama is surrounded by proponents of new immigration laws as he speaks at a news conference in the East Room of the White House, in Washington, last Tuesday. Photograph: Stephen Crowley/New York Times


On Tuesday Senator Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, took to the floor of the Senate to speak about why he was supporting a Bill that would lead to the most sweeping changes in the US immigration laws in a generation.

Kaine’s support for the Bill was not unusual. He was one of 52 Democrats in the Senate among 84 senators who voted to push the Bill created by the cross-party Gang of Eight senators to a full debate. What made Kaine’s intervention unique was that he spoke entirely in Spanish. He was the first senator ever to deliver a speech all in Spanish.

“Latinos have so much invested in the outcome of this Bill, people ought to know what the Bill is about,” he said, according to the New York Times.

While the Latino community have the most at stake – they make up the bulk of the 11 million immigrants living illegally in the United States – the legislation, if passed, will benefit the undocumented Irish, estimated at 50,000 by the Irish Government and immigration lobbyists.

Years of heartbreak
The Bill creates a path to citizenship allowing immigrants to become US citizens over 13 years. While this is still a long time, the changes are expected to give the undocumented quasi-resident status once they apply. This would end years of heartbreak for many Irish who cannot return home for important family occasions such as weddings and funerals.

The proposed immigration Bill leaves Republicans in a bind. At a national level, many Republicans concede (reluctantly) that they must change what many Democrats regard as a dysfunctional immigration system because the Latino community, in particular, is a growing political force and the GOP must win them over to remain politically relevant.

Barack Obama won 71 per cent of the Hispanic vote, which helped propel him back to the White House in last year’s presidential elections. US demographics are playing against traditional Republican core beliefs and the party’s power base. Just as the American population is changing, the party too must change if they are to have any chance of regaining the presidency again.

The further down the political tiers you go, into the heartlands of individual Republicans, be they senators or members of congress, the stronger the opposition to the proposed changes becomes. Those politicians must speak to constituents who fear that legalising millions of immigrants will open the borders to further waves of immigrants looking to government entitlements, as they see it, creating a greater strain on America’s stretched public finances.

Expect to see plenty of anti-immigrant rhetoric over the coming months as one of the most divisive topics in US politics is debated further on Capitol Hill. While 30 Republicans, including the party’s Senate leader Mitch McConnell, voted to begin the debate on the Bill, many said that they would not vote for the legislation unless measures were included to tighten security at the US borders. Even one of the authors of the legislation, Gang of Eight member Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, said he doesn’t think he can support the legislation as drafted unless the borders are secured.

The Bill requires 60 votes to pass the Senate and it appears close to this level. But the magic number is 70 as the authors of the Bill believe this will provide political shelter to Republicans in the lower House of Representatives, where there is even greater opposition, to support proposals created out of a rare incidence of bipartisanship in a divided Congress.

Challenges ahead
Reflecting the challenges ahead, more than 300 amendments to the Bill were considered during the initial vetting of the legislation by the Senate judiciary committee and Republicans will be pushing for amendments as the Senate debates the legislation.

The main change that many Republicans seek is for the legalisation of millions of immigrants to be tied to watertight guarantees that border security will be tightened, though some of the proposed amendments may be unachievable at a practical level, putting a major roadblock in the way of the new legislation.

John Cornyn, the Republican senator from Texas, has surfaced as a key figure to be won over. He wants several conditions: a 90 per cent apprehension rate on illegal immigrants crossing US borders, a biometric exit system and an electronic-verification system to stop employers hiring illegal immigrants.

Other Republicans want changes that are seen as equally contentious.

Tuesday’s vote was an important step, but it is a long, bumpy road ahead before the biggest changes to the US immigration system since the 1980s become law. To quote a famous Irish election slogan: “A lot done, more to do.” Or, as they say in Spanish: España ha hecho mucho pero aún queda much por hacer.”

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