US Senate opens debate on immigration reform
A US Senate committee opened debate Thursday on an immigration reform bill backed by President Barack Obama, which would lead to legal status for millions of people in the country without papers.
The debate could last weeks before moving to a second stage on the Senate floor, where Democrats hold a slender majority. 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.
The bill contains dozens of measures, and 301 amendments also will be considered.
Besides providing a path to US citizenship after a 13-year wait for undocumented immigrants who entered the country before 2012, the reform would increase the number of work visas and permanent residencies granted to skilled workers, particularly in scientific fields.
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.
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.
The last major reform of the US immigration system in 1986 did little to stem the flow of undocumented migrants.
"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 Senator Charles Grassley, a Republican from Iowa.
Another Republican, Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, criticized the bill because it contains no requirement to fence in the US-Mexico border, and Senator 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 Senator Charles Schumer of New York.
Defending the bill, Schumer argued "it will make our immigration policy much more in sync with what is good for jobs and Americans."