With broad bipartisan support, the Senate approved sweeping legislation Thursday that would significantly benefit Florida and finally create a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Sen. Marco Rubio deserves credit for helping negotiate reforms and build a coalition of reasonable Republicans and Democrats, but the work is far from finished. The road will be even tougher in the more conservative House, and supporters have to keep up the pressure for comprehensive reform.
The 68-32 vote sent a strong message about the merits of the Senate bill, even if it is far from perfect. The path to citizenship would take more than a decade and should be shorter. The strict requirements along the way, from learning English to paying fines and back taxes, may be too difficult for many illegal immigrants to clear. The $46 billion for strengthening the border to win over more conservative senators is too high, and the requirements for border security goals to be met before permanent resident green cards are obtained may be a prescription for failure.
Yet the legislation offers a far smarter way forward than the status quo, and it reflects what can be accomplished by building consensus in an era where Washington has been paralyzed by partisan gridlock. The Senate bill acknowledges the reality that 11 million illegal immigrants are not going to be returned to their home countries. It also recognizes that many of them already are quietly working in Florida fields and businesses, attending public schools and living peacefully in our communities.
Undocumented immigrants would not be the only beneficiaries of the Senate bill. So would large segments of Florida's economy. Labor and business groups agreed on a provision to create up to 200,000 guest visas annually for low-skilled immigrants like those who work in Florida's tourism industry. The number of visas for high-skilled foreign workers also would be increased. And a new agricultural guest worker program would benefit Florida agriculture, where informed estimates suggest the overwhelming number of field workers are illegal immigrants.
In his closing remarks before the Senate vote, Rubio acknowledged that the immigration issue ''has been a real trial for me" and that it angered many conservatives who helped elect him. But he recounted his family's move from Cuba to Florida in search of work and a better life, and he talked of the "miracle of America,'' of the impact immigrants have on the nation and the impact the nation has on immigrants. "I support this reform,'' the Florida Republican concluded, "not just because I believe in immigrants, but because I believe in America even more.''
Convincing the House Republicans to embrace that optimistic vision will be difficult. House Speaker John Boehner has no control over the most conservative Republicans and no appetite for building a coalition of Democrats and mainstream Republicans like the Senate did to pass immigration legislation. It will be up to President Barack Obama and Republicans like Rubio to build public pressure, change the speaker's mind and force a House vote on comprehensive immigration reform that could pass with bipartisan support.