Thursday, November 26, 2015         

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Senate approves sweeping immigration bill

The bipartisan measure will confront stubborn opposition from the House GOP

By McClatchy News Services


WASHINGTON » The Senate on Thursday voted 68-32 to overhaul the U.S. immigration system, an ambitious plan that creates a way for millions of undocumented immigrants to become citizens while requiring tough new steps to secure the nation's borders.

The measure, the most sweeping changes to immigration law since the 1980s, now faces a perilous path in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, where Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said flatly, "The House is not going to take up and vote on whatever the Senate passes. We're going to do our own bill."

Though the outcome of the vote was long known, Senate leaders created fresh drama by having members take the unusual step of voting in their seats, a practice reserved for only the most momentous occasions.

The Senate vote was a robust endorsement to a thousand-page bill painstakingly crafted by a "Gang of Eight" senators from both parties and amended this week to bring in some skeptics. Fourteen Republicans joined 52 Demo­crats and two independents in voting yes Thursday, while 32 Republicans voted no.

Debate was unusually impassioned.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., invoked the spirit of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, who worked feverishly to enact immigration legislation before his death in 2009.

"Senator Kennedy knew the day would come when a group of senators divided by party, but united by love of country, would see this fight to the finish," Reid said as he closed the debate.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., had endured sharp criticism from conservatives for his efforts to find common ground. Before he voted yes Thursday, he recalled his parents, who came to this country from Cuba. "Well before they became citizens, in their hearts they had already become Americans," he said. "It reminds us that sometimes we focus so much on how immigrants could change America that we forget that America changes immigrants even more.

"This is not just my story," Rubio said. "This is our story. It reminds us that we are ‘E Pluribus Unum' — out of many, one."

Under the legislation, employers would have to check on a potential employee's legal status, and the number of visas available for skilled worked needed by the technology industry would be increased.

The measure would create a 13-year path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Pacific migrants in Hawaii would once again be eligible for Medicaid under the bill, a provision that could save the state millions of dollars a year.

Migrants from Micronesia, the Marshall Islands and Palau who can legally travel and live in the United States have not been eligible for Medicaid since a 1996 welfare reform law. The state has estimated that it spends about $40 million a year on Medicaid-related benefits for more than 13,200 Pacific migrants.

U.S. Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, inserted the provision restoring Medicaid eligibility for Pacific migrants into the immigration bill, along with several other amendments that could benefit Hawaii. The bill would help Filipino World War II veterans reunite with their adult children, allow Hawaii longline fishing boats to temporarily rotate foreign crews in the islands, and make Hong Kong eligible for the federal visa waiver program, which could increase tourism.

"I stand with the large, bipartisan group of senators in voting for an immigration bill that will benefit Hawaii and our nation," said Hirono, who emigrated from Japan as a child. "Now it is time for my former colleagues in the House to come together and pass this bill."

U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, also voted for the bill.

"What makes our state so special is the ability to welcome people from all over the world to make a thriving economy, culture and community. This vote is consistent with our values," he said in a statement.

Senate supporters had hoped that Thursday's vote would provide momentum heading to the House, but it wasn't immediately evident.

Boehner scheduled a July 10 meeting of House Republicans to plot the way forward. The House Republican caucus is dominated by conservatives unenthusiastic about citizenship for undocumented immigrants.


Star-Advertiser writer Derrick DePledge contributed to this report.

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