Leading the way were the eight senators—four Democrats and four Republicans—who spent hour after hour since January working out a compromise at some political peril. They had reason to reflect: Unlike most bipartisan gangs from Senates past, this one actually produced legislation that could help resolve one of the most complex and far-reaching policy conundrums facing the country.
"We cussed one another, we cheered one another, and we wrote a bill together," Sen. Dick Durbin D-Ill., said of negotiations.
Immigration policy is, by definition, personal to most Americans. Throughout the final day of debate Thursday, senators made clear it's certainly personal to them.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., teared up when recalling his father-in-law, who was born in Russia.
Sens. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., and Durbin dedicated their votes to their mothers.
Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., recalled working as a child with his family, side-by-side with immigrants here illegally "who worked harder than we did under conditions much more difficult than we endured." Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., spoke of his grandparents and great-grandparents who fled persecution in Europe.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.
"Isn't it in us to bring 11 million people out of the shadows?" McCain said on the Senate floor.
Yes, the Senate later agreed, voting 68-32 to send to the House a bill that would put most of them on a path toward citizenship and establish a military-style operation of 20,000 new guards, 700 miles of fencing and an array of war-developed technologies like drones and motion sensors to make the U.S.-Mexico border virtually impenetrable. The House is all for the latter, but majority Republicans are much less enamored with a creating a new path to citizenship for people breaking the law by their very presence in the U.S.
Lawmakers had for months shared stories and listened to testimony from immigrants about the horrors of hiding, the sorrow of families separated and the struggle to make it in America. But Thursday, in the moments before the vote and the lawmakers' scramble out of town for July 4th, senators paused to make the point that the legislation is personal for them too.
Menendez said he was thinking of his own family, especially his mother, who came from Cuba. "When the moment comes to cast that vote, I will be casting it in memory of" her, he said.
Flake recalled cutting and hauling hay alongside "undocumented migrant" laborers, mostly from Mexico. "Since that time, 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."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., who's contemplating a presidential run in 2016, told his parents' story of boarding a plane leaving Cuba in 1956 and struggling to find stable footing here. His mother wept when "her president," John F. Kennedy, was assassinated in 1963, he said.
"Well before they became citizens, in their hearts they had already become Americans," said Rubio, whose role in the legislation has ignited a backlash from the same tea partyers who once made him their hero.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., spoke of his late parents when he addressed opponents of the bill who complain that immigrants are not well-educated.
"One of the critics of this bill, one of the organizations, said that the average illegal immigrant has a 10th-grade education. Well, all I can tell you is you have got a United States senator who came from parents that didn't have (even) a 10th grade education. ... To those who say that among this illegal immigrant population they are just not well-educated, you have no idea how offensive that is to a guy like me. So you can take your criticism—and we'll just end it at that."
Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., spoke of his mother's family escaping the Holocaust in Poland, going through Sweden and Mexico City and finally reaching New York City in 1950. His mother was almost 12 years old and the only one in the family who could speak any English. On the senator's first birthday, his grandparents once wrote him a birthday card that started, "Mr. President."
"'The ancient Greeks gave us the world, the high ideals of democracy, in search of which your dear mother and we came to the hospitable shores of beautiful America in 1950," they wrote, according to Bennet. "We have been happy here ever since—beyond our greatest dreams and expectations with democracy, freedom and love and humanity's greatest treasures. We hope that when you grow up, you will help to develop in other parts of the world a greater understanding of these American values.'"