CAPITOL HILL - The U.S. Senate has begun formal consideration of a landmark bill to overhaul America’s oft-criticized immigration system. The bipartisan proposal faces a long and perilous path through Congress, beginning in the Senate Judiciary Committee, which started work on the bill Thursday.
Critics say the United States is awash in undocumented immigrants - 11 million in total - but slow to open its doors to high-skilled foreign workers who would boost America's lackluster economy. Ending illegal immigration, legalizing the undocumented that are already here, and attracting the world’s brightest and best-educated people are central goals of a bill crafted by four Democratic and four Republican senators.
Democrat Charles Schumer touted the proposal at the Judiciary Committee. “It will mean dramatic improvement for the American economy, for the American people, and will make our immigration policy much more in synch with what is good for jobs and America," he said.
Fellow Democrat Richard Durbin agreed. “Our immigration system is broken. The laws we have do not serve us well. And this is our chance in this hearing room to write an immigration bill for the 21st Century - for America and its future," he said.
The bill aims to strengthen U.S. border security, streamline the legal immigration process, and provide a long and arduous path to eventual citizenship for most who entered the country illegally or overstayed their visas.
Already, some 300 amendments have been offered to the original framework proposal. Republican Senator Charles Grassley expressed skepticism that the bill as currently written will actually halt illegal immigration.
“We need to work together to secure the border first. People do not trust the enforcement of the law," he said.
Republican Senator Ted Cruz agreed, predicting that if the bipartisan bill became law, America would see new waves of illegal immigration in future years.
Another Republican, Jeff Sessions, wants to make sure U.S. citizens are not harmed economically when millions of undocumented workers are legalized.
“We must be focused more on getting jobs for lawful immigrants in our country, and [for] Americans. [U.S.] wages are not even keeping up with inflation, and that has been true for quite a long time," he said.
Democrats have amendments and priorities of their own. Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy wants guarantees that bi-national gay couples will have the same rights under America’s immigration system as their heterosexual counterparts.
Getting an immigration reform bill through both houses of a politically-divided Congress will be no easy feat. Provisions favored by Democrats, who control the Senate, might make the bill unpalatable to Republicans, who control the House of Representatives - and vice-versa.
Senator Schumer made a plea to his colleagues, saying “Be constructive. We are open to changes. But do not make an effort to kill a bill that is the best hope for immigration reform that we have had in this country.”
Sorting through the hundreds of amendments and crafting a final bill could take weeks. If approved by the Judiciary Committee, it would then go to the full Senate for a vote. Should it pass, attention would then shift to the House, which could vote on the Senate bill or write its own version. Only after both houses of Congress pass an identical immigration reform bill would it go to the White House for President Barack Obama’s signature.
Polls show a majority of Americans favor immigration reform, including a path to eventual citizenship for the undocumented.