WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday approved sweeping changes to immigration laws that would provide a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented residents. Arkansas senators split on the issue.
The bill passed, 68-32, and now awaits an uncertain future in the Republican-led House. U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat-Ark., voted for the legislation while Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., voted against it.
Pryor said the legislation would "strengthen our nation" by helping to move undocumented immigrants from "the shadows" and instituting "the strongest border security" measures in history.
"Those who have been in the shadows for decades will be taking responsibility for their actions by paying owed taxes, fines, and penalties; contributing to Social Security; helping reduce our deficit; and strengthening our economy," he said.
Boozman saw it differently. The "legalize now, enforce later" approach was the wrong way to reform a broken immigration system, he said.
"This legislation fails to address the core problem of border security and does not provide the resources necessary for enforcement," Boozman said. "This needs to be the cornerstone for reform."
The Senate began floor debate on the immigration bill more than two weeks ago and formally considered only a handful of the more than 300 proposed amendments. Senators voted earlier to close down debate after having adopted an amendment strengthening border security to secure additional support — including Pryor, who co-sponsored the amendment.
Boozman complained that the debate was cut off too soon.
"Immigration reform is a serious subject. It deserves a serious debate. Instead, we are left with another instance of Washington’s rush to do something, instead of doing the right thing," he said.
Senate Democrats were joined by 14 Republicans to pass the bill, while 32 Republicans voted against it. Opponents of the bill anticipate that the House will not adopt it.
The House Judiciary Committee is looking at a series of immigration and border security reforms but none would offer legal standing to an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants that have come to the United States mostly from Mexico.
The Senate bill would provide the undocumented immigrants legal standing and offer them a lengthy path to citizenship. It would also deploy another 20,000 agents to the border, complete 700 miles of fencing along the southwest border and require all employers to verify the legal standing of new hires.
The Senate bill would also expand the number of visas available for highly skilled workers and create a separate program to bring in temporary workers for farms.