Immigration deal heads for Mexican border with 'boots on ground'
WASHINGTON — A breakthrough at hand, Republicans and Democrats reached for agreement on Thursday on a costly, military-style surge to secure the leaky U.S.-Mexican border and clear the way for Senate passage of legislation giving millions of immigrants a chance at citizenship after years in America's shadows.
Lawmakers in both parties described a southern border that would be bristling with law enforcement manpower and technology as a result of legislation at the top of President Obama's second-term domestic policy agenda. The emerging deal calls for a doubling of the Border Patrol, with 20,000 new agents, 18 new unmanned surveillance drones, 700 miles of fencing and an array of fixed and mobile devices to maintain vigilance.
“This is a border surge. We have militarized our border, almost,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican.
“Boots on the ground, drones in the air,” summed up Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat who has been at the center of efforts to push immigration legislation through the Senate.
The plan was announced by Sens. John Hoeven of North Dakota and Bob Corker of Tennessee, Republicans who had been publicly uncommitted on the legislation. Both said other GOP fence-sitters would swing behind the measure if the changes were incorporated, and by late in the afternoon, two had done so.
A final vote on the legislation is expected by the end of next week.
The next move would be up to the House, where majority Republicans are overwhelmingly opposed to granting citizenship to immigrants living in the United States illegally. Talks on any final compromise would be held in the fall — if then.
The White House declined to respond to requests for comment on the Senate proposal, even though congressional officials said administration officials were involved in the formal drafting of the terms.
Under the emerging deal, an estimated 11 million immigrants living in the United States illegally would be eligible to obtain legal status while border security was increased. They could not be awarded green cards, which bestow permanent residency status, until the entire border enhancement plan had been put into place.
That effectively would give the government a decade to set up the additional security, as the legislation envisions a pathway to citizenship that gives immigrants provisional status after six months but requires them to wait at least a decade before they become eligible for green cards.
Despite the changes, the legislation appeared certain to retain the basic contours negotiated over many months by a so-called Gang of Eight, four senators from each party.
Whatever its impact on the bill's prospects, the deal failed to satisfy a group of conservative Senate critics who want proof that the border has been secured before legalization begins, rather than the mere placement of new agents and equipment.
“My impression is this is a promise of future performance and there is no contingency in the form of a trigger” to assure its effectiveness, said John Cornyn, R-Texas.
Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., cautioned that the highly touted agreement had not been drafted yet, much less read by members of the Senate and their staffs.
The legislation has a broad array of outside interests pushing for its passage, although two organizations objected to the plan for changes.
Speaking for CAMBIO, an organization that favors immigrant rights, Christian Ramirez said the deal should include lapel cameras to deter abuse by border agents, as well as the placement of 1,000 distress beacons in the desert.
The ACLU called the proposed agreement a “massive deployment of force” that would be “simply devastating for border communities.”
Corker and Hoeven both said they expected the legislation to be formally revealed in the Senate late Thursday.
The agreement was a turn in the Senate spotlight for the two men, who have spent days in secretive talks with fellow Republicans, and then Schumer and Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey.
“We must secure the border first” before anyone in the country illegally can gain citizenship, Hoeven said on the Senate floor. “That's what Americans demand, and that's what we must do.” He said the 10-year cost included $25 billion for the additional Border Patrol agents, $3 billion for fencing and $3.2 billion for other measures. Other officials said the overall cost of the security upgrade could reach $40 billion over a decade.
Corker told reporters the plan amounted to “border security on steroids” and said it would impart “tremendous momentum” to the bill on the Senate floor. By day's end, Republican Sens. Mark Kirk of Illinois and Dean Heller of Nevada said they, too, were prepared to vote for the bill if the changes were incorporated.
That brought to 10 the number of Republicans who have indicated they will vote for the bill, far more than enough to assure it will have the 60 required to overcome any attempted filibuster by last-ditch opponents. Democrats control 54 seats, and party aides have said they do not expect any defections from their side of the political aisle.
Democrats and Republicans alike said Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, was pressing for a toughening of the E-Verify program and that a small group of Southern Republicans wanted changes made to a new program that would permit farm workers from other countries to work in the United States temporarily.