Senators voted Thursday to allow illegal immigrants to get legal status before the border with Mexico is fully deemed secure, marking the first vote on changes to the immigration bill and signaling that the core of the deal is holding.
The 57-43 vote saw five Republicans join with 52 Democrats to back the crux of the immigration bill, which grants quick legal status to illegal immigrants, giving them the right to live and work in the U.S. without fear of deportation, but withholding citizenship rights for more than a decade while the government works on border security.
Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Iowa Republican, tried to amend the bill to require that border security come before any legalization. Mr. Grassley, a veteran of the 1986 immigration law that gave amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants but never followed through on security, said delaying legalization will pressure Homeland Security Department officials to follow through on better border protection.
"Border security first, like promised, legalize next," Mr. Grassley said. "If the bill passes as is, the secretary only needs to submit two plans before processing people through the legalization program."
As written, the bill calls for more money to be spent before illegal immigrants can get their full path to citizenship. But they could still get immediate legal status and work permits, and there are no hard border security metrics in the bill before citizenship can be achieved.
The bill's authors have said that is by design. They argue the only way to make illegal immigrants come forward is to guarantee them citizenship rights at the end of the path.
"What do we do for five, six years until the border is fully secure? It's going to take awhile to do it. We need to bring equipment there, we need to build fences there," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat.
While Mr. Grassley's amendment was blocked, a bigger border security fight is still looming on an amendment by Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican whose proposal would still allow illegal immigrants to get immediate legal status, but would require stiff border security before they get green cards.
In Thursday's vote, the five Republicans who backed the immigration deal included four who helped write the bill and whose votes were assured. The other Republican was Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska Republican, whose vote signaled she is ready to sign on to the deal.
Two Democrats — Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — voted for the border security provision, signaling they are unlikely to support any final bill without major changes to it.
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