The importance of the vote was marked in unusual ways: Vice President Biden presided over the roll call, and senators voted from their desks, rising one by one to announce their stands.
Chiesa, an interim senator appointed to replace the late Democratic Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, said he would have liked to have seen stronger border-security measures included in the bill, and favored some Republican amendments that were defeated. But in an interview with The Inquirer, he said advancing the final package was best for New Jersey and the country.
"Taking this step, getting the bill over to the House, where they'll hopefully make it stronger, is the right thing to do," Chiesa said. "There's 450,000 or so people in New Jersey that will be impacted by this. I have a short time here, and I think it's most productive to use my time in a way that advances this issue in a way that I think is productive and helpful to the people that live in my state."
The 450,000 figure refers to the estimated number of immigrants in New Jersey who are not legally resident. The bill would create a path to legalized status and, eventually, citizenship, for an estimated 11 million immigrants nationwide.
Chiesa's stand may affect how national conservatives, who are deeply divided on immigration, view Gov. Christie, who named him to fill Lautenberg's seat until an October special election.
Most Republicans - 32 of them - opposed the bill. But Chiesa's support added to the bipartisan vote count that backers hoped would prompt action in the GOP-controlled House.
Until Thursday, Chiesa had expressed concern about border security, but had declined to take a firm stand on the bill. He voted for measures to strengthen security, including a so-called border surge that would nearly double patrols and add hundreds of miles of new fencing.
Chiesa announced his final decision Thursday morning on Twitter.
Menendez hugged fellow senators after the vote.
"I remember today my mother who came to this country with a dream, not knowing the language, not having anybody here to receive her, and taking a chance on that dream, a chance that ultimately led to having her son serve in the U.S. Senate," Menendez said after the bill was approved.
"There are few times in my nearly 20 years in the House and Senate that you can have the opportunity to affect the lives of millions of people . . . and that's what this legislation is all about," he said.
In a floor speech before the vote, he said the bill was for immigrants "who came to this country in the last century to give their families a chance . . . and for all those who will now have a chance to contribute to America's exceptionalism in this century."
Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) also supported the measure. "This bill will strengthen our borders, set forth a fair path to earned citizenship, reduce the deficit by $700 billion, and strengthen our economy," he said in a statement.
Sen. Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) voted against it. He said that the plan should have included more visas for low-skill workers and that many people would still enter the country illegally.
"This has been a huge missed opportunity to fix a broken immigration system," Toomey said in a statement. "While it has some positives, this bill misses the mark. If enacted, it would guarantee the next wave of illegal immigration."
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