For Sen. Charles E. Schumer, nothing less than the very existence of the Statue of Liberty was at stake in Thursday's Senate vote, with the New York Democrat saying that to defeat the immigration bill would have been to "tear the very fabric of American asunder."
With the fates of their political parties — and in many cases their own re-elections — hanging on their votes, senators stood, one after the other, to say "Aye" or "No" on the most significant piece of legislation since health care.
Most of them had their personal immigration experiences on their minds. Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, said his Cuban father's experience was a reason he helped write the legislation. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said his wife's experience immigrating legally as a child and eventually becoming a Cabinet secretary informed his vote against the bill.
Republican Sen. Jeff Flake recalled working as a youth in alfalfa fields near Snowflake, Ariz., alongside illegal immigrants, and others talked about their parents fleeing the Holocaust or communist oppression.
"You heard it on the floor of the Senate today. As senator after senator came up and told their story and their family's story, the American story, we were able to not only tell the story. We were able to vote for the bill that will reaffirm those values," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat who recalled his immigrant mother.
When the time came to vote, Vice President Joseph R. Biden took the president's chair and senators stood at their desks — a ceremonial move that underscored the heft of the occasion.
They did so knowing that their political lives were on the line.
Two of the chief Republican supporters, Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee, are facing ads back home calling for primary challengers to try to unseat them in 2016 and 2018, respectively. The praise from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat, for their efforts to forge a compromise on the bill could cut both ways.
"They allowed us to get votes with this," Mr. Reid said. "I will always admire these two courageous men who stepped forward, stepped out of the crowd and did something that was right."
The vote underscored how far the issue has changed over the years, mainly because of President Obama's victories in the 2008 and 2012 elections.
The last time the Senate took up immigration, in 2007, many Republicans balked at any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. Democrats refused to accept a guest-worker program that would allow millions of foreign workers to compete for jobs.
But this year, with the blessings of major labor unions, every Democrat in the Senate backed the bill.
Among Republicans, the debate over legalization also has shifted.
"Virtually every member of the Republican Senate Conference accepts legalization as a practical solution. There's just a debate about how and when," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican. "How far we have come."
The immigration issue has dogged Congress for more than a decade, with President Bush's efforts for legalization shelved by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and the Pentagon, only to be dusted off ahead of the 2004 elections and then put on the Senate floor in 2006 and 2007.
A legalization bill passed the Senate in 2006 but stalled as the House went in the other direction, passing an enforcement-only bill that drew millions into the streets to protest. The Senate tried again a year later, but a bipartisan filibuster blocked the bill.
Lawmakers said the issue bedevils them because it pits two fundamental American values against each other: the rule of law versus a history as a nation of immigrants.
That history of immigration played a major role in Thursday's debate.
"I remember today, my mother, who came to this country with a dream, not knowing the language, not having anybody here to receive her and taking a chance on that dream, a chance that ultimately led to having her son serve in the United States Senate and to be here on this historic day," said Cuban-American Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who voted for the bill.
But for Mr. McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, his vote was informed by the experience of his wife, Elaine L. Chao, who arrived in the cargo hull of a ship from Taiwan at the age of 8 not knowing any English, and decades later was being sworn in to the Cabinet as labor secretary.
"This is the kind of story that has made this nation what it is. Legal immigration made it possible," Mr. McConnell said.
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