Washington • A Senate panel passed a sweeping immigration reform bill Tuesday evening, which Sen. Orrin Hatch supported after the committee accepted his changes to a visa program for highly skilled workers.
The bill offers the largest re-write of the nation's immigration laws since the 1980s, spending billions of dollars on border security, creating a 13-year path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants and requiring every employer to check the immigration status of workers.
Tuesday's 13-5 vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee is an achievement for the bill's supporters, but it still must survive weeks of debate before the full Senate and make it through the Republican-controlled House, a politically perilous process expected to last throughout the summer and into the fall.
The committee considered hundreds of amendments over five days of lengthy debate, which pushed the bill to the right by requiring the government to apprehend 90 percent of illegal border crossers on the entire boundary with Mexico instead of just high-risk areas. The committee also accepted an amendment to require the fingerprinting of foreign nationals leaving from the nation's busiest airports.
That fingerprinting provision was sponsored by Hatch, R-Utah, who emerged as the key figure in the Judiciary debate. His was the only vote up for grabs, and the bill's supporters aggressively sought his approval.
Hatch promised to support the bill if the committee would make it easier for high-tech companies to get visas for temporary foreign workers. The committee did so over the objections of unions, which wanted tougher rules to ensure companies hire Americans first.
Under the agreement that Hatch struck with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., most companies will have to place a job listing on online employment boards and certify that they don't intend to displace an American worker, but will avoid new audits and more stringent requirements to recruit domestic employees.
"Senator Hatch, a number of us, myself included, have really leaned a long way in your direction to get your support for immigration reform," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill. "We made those concessions to win your support. We need your support. We want to pass this bill."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., also lauded Hatch saying his support "is very welcome, much needed and appreciated."
This is the first time in Hatch's 37-year Senate career that he voted for a bill with a path to citizenship, indicating before the Judiciary debate that he was swayed in part by the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce and religious leaders, including those in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who have been supportive of immigration reform.
"I think if it is defeated, we won't do anything for another 10 years. And we'll just let what really is a festering sore continue to fester," Hatch said at the time. "I think we've got to face up to this."
But Hatch hasn't committed to supporting the bill on the Senate floor, and he won't unless the Senate adopts his plan to require unauthorized immigrants to forgo federal health benefits under the Affordable Care Act for five years and pay back taxes.
Schumer, Durbin and Graham are three members of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" that drafted the bill. They want to get at least 70 votes in the Senate to put pressure on the House of Representatives to take up the bill and that will take some significant Republican support. The Gang hopes Hatch can help.
Utah's senior senator said the high-tech compromise "would help make this bill more acceptable to the House."
That is yet to be seen, as House Speaker John Boehner has expressed a willingness to support immigration reform, but key members of his Republican caucus have rejected the Senate's approach, instead favoring a process that breaks the bill into parts and may delay a path to citizenship for the 11 million people in the U.S. illegally.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, one of five Republican on the Judiciary Committee to oppose the bill, was an original member of the "Gang of Eight" but dropped out because he couldn't support a path to citizenship.
The bill offers legal status to unauthorized immigrants within six months of the bill's passage if certain border security provisions are put into place.
After 10 years these provisional immigrants can obtain a green card, as long as they learn English, pay a fine and maintain employment.
Lee favors putting off any legislation addressing those in the U.S. illegally.
Instead he argues to break the bill into pieces, accepting more consensus items on border security and legal immigration first.
None of Utah's four House members have supported a path to citizenship or worked on a similar bill being developed by their colleagues.