US immigration bill passes early Senate test

US immigration bill passes early Senate test

US immigration bill passes early Senate test

Supporters of immigration reform say a prayer prior to the start of the reform bill’s markup before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee is expected to complete work on the bill by the end of this month, sending it to the full Senate to face a tougher test. AFP photo

A landmark bill backed by U.S. President Barack Obama to overhaul the nation’s immigration system survived unscathed on May 9 during the first day of consideration by a divided Senate Judiciary Committee.

On bipartisan votes, the panel rejected conservatives’ attempts to thwart implementation of a centerpiece of the bill – a pathway to U.S. citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants.

By day’s end leading Democratic and Republican senators said the committee had improved the bill.

The panel, composed of 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, accepted 21 relatively modest amendments that focus largely on border security and increased congressional oversight. All but one amendment were agreed to on bipartisan votes.

Eleven other amendments were rejected or withdrawn, many of them Republican bids to bolster border security in ways that went far beyond the steps spelled out in the bill, while also delaying or even killing proposals to legalize undocumented immigrants.

Republicans eye Hispanic electorate

As currently written, the bill would boost funding for border security, revamp visa programs to allow for more high- and low-skilled workers and chart a 13-year path to citizenship for most of the 11 million illegal immigrants in the country.

The committee is expected to complete work on the bill by the end of this month, sending it to the full Senate, where Democrats hold a slender majority, to face a tougher test. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives would then take up the legislation, with a final vote expected no earlier than the summer.

After its resounding failure to win passage of gun control legislation, the Obama administration is left with immigration as one of its remaining second-term priorities.

Since their defeat in the 2012 presidential elections, Republican leaders have shifted positions and now support immigration reform in the hope of winning back the Hispanic electorate, whose clout is expected to grow in future elections.

‘Many want to kill this bill’

But the party’s right wing still poses a big obstacle, with conservatives resisting what they see as an “amnesty” for immigrants who broke the law by staying in the country illegally.

Improved controls on the border with Mexico, where half of the 11.5 million undocumented immigrants come from, are meant to persuade opponents that the current problems will not be repeated.

“Unfortunately the bill looks too much like the 1986 bill which failed to take care of the problems we’re now trying to solve. It falls too short of what I want to see in a strong immigration reform bill,” said Sen. Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.

Another Republican, Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, criticized the bill because it contains no requirement to fence in the U.S.-Mexico border, and Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said it was “toothless.” “We know our present system is broken, we know the status quo is unacceptable, but we also know that there are many who want to kill this bill,” responded Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer of New York.

The last major reform of the U.S. immigration system in 1986 did little to stem the flow of undocumented migrants.