Immigration Overhaul Passes Senate

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid meets with Astrid Silva of Las Vegas before the immigration vote. Silva came to the U.S. from Mexico illegally with her parents when she was 4 years old. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

After three weeks of debate and 18 votes, the Senate overwhelmingly voted, 68-32, to pass an immigration overhaul Thursday, capping a process begun in January when the bipartisan "gang of eight" announced it had agreed to a set of key principles for overhauling the system.

The gang of eight's efforts were successful despite the Senate's repeated failures over the past decade to approve a "reform" bill. In a nod to the potential historic nature of the vote, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. presided over the vote in his capacity as president of the Senate, and Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., arranged for senators to cast their votes from their desks — a procedure reserved for important roll calls.

Though the measure did not get the 70 votes the sponsors had hoped for, support grew significantly during the debate when the Senate adopted a key compromise on border security drafted by Republican Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee. Shortly before the final passage vote, Reid called Corker and Hoeven "courageous men" for brokering the compromise that made the bill more bipartisan.

In addition to Corker and Hoeven, 12 other Republicans voted for the bill: Sens. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, Jeff Chiesa of New Jersey, Susan Collins of Maine, Jeff Flake of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Dean Heller of Nevada, Mark S. Kirk of Illinois, Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, John McCain of Arizona, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Marco Rubio of Florida.

The final hours of debate featured backers and opponents making impassioned pleas on the Senate floor. Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Rubio gave emotional speeches about their own families' immigrant history. Both are members of the group of eight that wrote the underlying bill.

Menendez spoke about his mother, who came to the U.S. from Cuba:

“When the moment comes to cast that vote, I will be casting it in memory of my mother — and for every immigrant like her who came to this country in the last century to give their families a chance to contribute to America’s exceptionalism — and for all those who will now have a chance to contribute to America’s exceptionalism in this century."

But opponents were just as fervent in their speeches. Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., who has led the opposition from the beginning, said:

"This flawed bill did not come about because of inadvertence. The errors weren’t a part of chance or ignorance or mistake. The policies reflected in this piece of legislation came about as a direct result of the fact that the forces that shaped it had goals that were important to them, but these goals are not coterminous with—they’re not in harmony with—the interests of the nation as a whole."

Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he will not bring it up for a vote