Immigration reform passes Senate with Hatch's support
Washington • A big majority of senators approved a sweeping immigration bill Thursday, while Utah's senators like the Republican caucus itself split on the issue.
Sen. Orrin Hatch voted for the legislation, arguing now is the time to bring 11 million unauthorized immigrants out of the shadows, bolster border security and help employers access a stable stream of temporary workers.
"Our immigration system is broken and needs to be reformed," he said, "and passing this bill today is an important first step toward fixing it."
Sen. Mike Lee disagrees entirely, saying the bill is deeply flawed and wouldn't stop future waves of illegal immigrations.
"It is full of promises to beef up border security but it makes no assurances," he said on the Senate floor. "This bill is not immigration reform, it is big-government dysfunction."
Thursday's 68 to 32 vote marks a major, though expected, milestone in the congressional debate on the contentious issue. All of the Senate Democrats supported the bill, which is President Barack Obama's top second-term priority. Hatch was one of 14 Republicans to join them, while Lee sided with the Senate Republican leaders in voting against the 1,200-page reform.
The attention now shifts to the House where the Republican majority plans to vote on a series of smaller bills, heavily focused on securing the border, expanding guest worker programs and enforcing immigration laws, all of which are in the Senate bill.
It is not clear if the House will take up a pathway to citizenship.
None of Utah's four House members have announced their support for a legalization program, which Senate Democrats and Obama say is key to any immigration deal, though Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah, is the only one to unequivocally say he will oppose any path to citizenship.
Lee was originally a member of the bipartisan group of senators that drafted the bill, but left when he couldn't support its 13-year-long citizenship program. He emerged as one of the bill's biggest opponents.
Lee said the House's approach gives him hope that Congress can pass a workable program, one that would start by implementing new border security measures then reform legal immigration and come up with a plan for unauthorized immigrants sometime down the road.
Hatch has said that strategy will result in no bill at all.
This is the first time Utah's senior senator has supported a path to citizenship in his 37 years in office. He said he's doing so because it is in a bill that he thinks will help businesses get the workers it needs and treats immigrants compassionately.
Hatch has sought to tie his positions closely to those of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., a leading conservative and potential 2016 presidential candidate, who has been the party's primary voice in favor of immigration reform.
Rubio and Hatch helped negotiate an agricultural worker program with Democrats and sponsored an amendment that sought to require unauthorized immigrants to pay back taxes for every year they have been here illegally.
The Senate never voted on that back-taxes amendment, and Hatch said he will work to get it included either in a House bill or in final negotiations before any House and Senate bills are reconciled.
Jesus Loya, an undocumented Utahn, says the bill may not be perfect, but it is the best chance in years to secure permanent legal status for him and many of his friends. He celebrated the Senate vote.
"This is definitely a step forward. This is something I have looked forward to for a very long time," said Loya, who can work legally after receiving a two-year deferred action program created by Obama for children of undocumented immigrants.
Young people like Loya have labeled themselves Dreamers, and the bill would allow similar children of undocumented immigrants to get on an eight-year path to citizenship. That is five years shorter than the legalization track offered to other unauthorized immigrants.
All of them, Dreamers included, would have to pay a $1,000 fine, pass background checks, stay current on their tax payments and pass English proficiency tests to gain legal status and the right to work. After 10 years they could get a green card and three years later they could apply for citizenship.
Hatch said this is not amnesty, as some opponents charge; rather, he believes it is an earned, tough road to assimilation and citizenship. Lee says it is too soft on those who came here in violation of federal laws.
Loya, an engineer working in the high-tech sector, has traveled to Washington to lobby lawmakers this year and follows the debate closely. He's a realist about the chance of immigration reform as it moves to the House, though he remains an optimist.
"The House is going to be a good fight. The House of Representatives have the opportunity to perfect the bill," he said. "This is not something they can walk away from."
In Utah, immigrants celebrated the Senate vote at two rallies in Salt Lake City, at Centro Civico Mexicano and the federal building.
"This will really be good for everybody," said immigrant Arsenio Gonzales. "It's going to bring a big impact in every way. Economically, more people will buy houses and cars and it will improve the economy."
Gonzales added that bringing immigrants out of the shadows is the right thing to do.
"We are living in a new world," he said. "And this will bring humanity to the world."
The Senate's action brought a smile, as well as tears, to immigrant Karina Meca, whose uncle was recently deported.
"I've seen a lot of people deported," she said. "I hope this will give them a chance to come back and see their families."
Immigrant Jesus Santos said that if the legislation passes the House, it will "benefit a lot of people."
"I'm happy. This is a good opportunity for a better life."
Zulema Santoyo, who is a documented resident, said immigration reform is a "win/win for everybody."
"We have been waiting for this for so many years," she said. "This is a nice opportunity for people to come out [from the shadows]. I think it's great.
The Senate vote is a victory, but a lot remains to be done, said Archie Archuleta of Utah Coalition of La Raza. "We are celebrating because it's a first step and a giant step in solving our immigration problems."
Tribune reporter Christopher Smart contributed to this story.