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US immigration reform bill passed

Millions of immigrants living illegally in America have been offered the hope of citizenship after the US Senate passed controversial legislation.

The bill also promises a military-style effort to secure the porous border with Mexico, but its prospects remain highly uncertain in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

The bipartisan vote was 68-32 on a measure that is top of President Barack Obama's second-term domestic agenda. But conservatives generally oppose citizenship for immigrants living in the US unlawfully, complicating the bill's prospects in the House.

Spectators in galleries that overlook the Senate floor watched expectantly as senators voted one by one from their desks. Some onlookers erupted in chants of "Yes, we can" after Vice President Joe Biden announced the bill's passage.

After three weeks of debate, there was no doubt about the outcome. Fourteen Republicans joined all 52 Democrats and two independents to support the bill.

In a written statement, Mr Obama coupled praise for the Senate's action with a plea for resolve by supporters as the House works on the issue.

"Now is the time when opponents will try their hardest to pull this bipartisan effort apart so they can stop common-sense reform from becoming a reality. We cannot let that happen," said the president, who is travelling in Africa.

In the Senate, at least, the developments marked an end to years of gridlock on immigration. The shift began taking shape quickly after the 2012 presidential election, when many Republican leaders concluded the party must show a more welcoming face to Hispanic voters who had given Mr Obama more than 70% of their support.

The bill's opponents were unrelenting, if outnumbered. "The amnesty will occur, but the enforcement is not going to occur, and the policies for future immigration are not serving the national interest," Republican Senator Jeff Sessions said.

Under a deal brokered last week, 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 US-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.

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