CAPITOL HILL— U.S. legislators squared off in the Senate Friday to debate a major overhaul of the nation’s immigration system.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) praised the bill in opening statements of what is expected to be several weeks of wrangling over legislation based on a bipartisan plan by the so-called “Gang of Eight” representatives.
"Our system is broken and needs to be fixed," he said. "It is gratifying to see the momentum behind this package of common sense reforms, which will make our country safer and help 11 million undocumented immigrants get right with the law."
While Reid said he expects a final vote on the legislation before the July 4 recess, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), a leading opponent of the bill, countered by saying many Americans oppose the idea of granting those who came to the United States illegally a pathway to citizenship.
"You are not allowed to pay a guide and come across the border illegally and 18 months later demand a pathway to citizenship in the United States," said Sessions. "It is just not law."
Authors of the bill say the legislation would require those in the country illegally to pay a fine, taxes and then wait years for a chance at citizenship, a policy that would be linked to tough customs enforcement at the border.
But opponents say they fear that the bill will amount to de facto amnesty, and that millions more could continue to enter the country illegally.
Jill Wilson, a senior research analyst at the Brookings Institution, said the pathway to citizenship is the most divisive issue right now, and that Republicans aligned with Sessions point to the last amnesty campaign granted to three million people in 1986.
"[Opponents of the bill] need to have greater reassurance that large-scale illegal immigration will not happen again, and that the need for another legalization program will not occur," she said, adding that the prospect of introducing more high-tech professionals into U.S. markets — along with lower-skilled workers on temporary work visas — poses another obstacle to proponents of the bill.
Even if the reform bill passes the Senate, it is likely face even tougher debate in the House, where Congressional leaders have vowed to bring their own immigration bill to the floor.