WASHINGTON -- The Senate has passed historic immigration legislation offering the hope of American citizenship to millions, while promising a military-style surge to secure the border.
The vote was 68-32, eight more than needed to send the measure to the House. Prospects there are not nearly as good and many conservatives are opposed.
Vice President Joe Biden presided, and senators cast their votes from their desks, both steps reserved for momentous votes.
The bill, a priority for President Barack Obama, would amount to the most sweeping changes in decades to the nation's immigration laws.
In the final hours of debate, members of the so-called Gang of 8, the group that drafted the measure, frequently spoke in personal terms while extolling the bill's virtues, rebutting its critics - and appealing to the House members, whose turn comes next.
"Do the right thing for America and for your party," said Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., who said his mother emigrated to the United States from Cuba. "Find common ground. Lean away from the extremes. Opt for reason and govern with us."
Arizona Republican Sen. Jeff Flake said those seeking legal status after living in the United States illegally must "pass a background check, make good on any tax liability and pay a fee and a fine." There are other requirements before citizenship can be obtained, he noted.
He, too, spoke from personal experience, recalling time he spent as a youth working alongside family members and "undocumented migrant labor, largely from Mexico, who worked harder than we did under conditions much more difficult than we endured."
Since then, he said, "I have harbored a feeling of admiration and respect for those who have come to risk life and limb and sacrifice so much to provide a better life for themselves and their families."
The bill's opponents were unrelenting, if outnumbered.
"We will admit dramatically more people than we ever have in our country's history at a time when unemployment is high and the Congressional Budget Office has told us that average wages will go down for 12 years, that gross national product per capita will decline for 25-plus years, that unemployment will go up," said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala.
The legislation's chief provisions includes numerous steps to prevent future illegal immigration - some added in a late compromise that swelled Republican support for the bill - and to check on the legal status of job applicants already living in the United States. At the same time, it offers a 13-year path to citizenship to as many as 11 million immigrants now living in the country unlawfully.
Under the deal brokered last week by Republican Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee and the Gang of 8, the measure requires 20,000 new Border Patrol agents, the completion of 700 miles of fencing and deployment of an array of high-tech devices along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Those living in the country illegally could gain legal status while the border security plan was being implemented, but would not be granted permanent resident green cards or citizenship.
A plan requiring businesses to check on the legal status of prospective employees would be phased in over four years.
Other provisions would expand the number of visas available for highly skilled workers relied upon by the technology industry. A separate program would be established for lower-skilled workers, and farm workers would be admitted under a temporary program. In addition, the system of legal immigration that has been in effect for decades would be changed, making family ties less of a factor and elevating the importance of education, job skills and relative youth.