The U.S. Senate is scheduled to vote June 24 on a compromise border security proposal designed to attract Republican support for the most significant revision of immigration law in a generation.
The agreement on the security issue, struck at the behest of Republicans and grudgingly accepted by Democrats, would double the U.S. Border Patrol’s size by adding 20,000 agents and also require 700 miles of fencing at the U.S.-Mexico border. It would provide additional unmanned aerial drones to help police the border.
“The amendment will put to rest any remaining concerns about the border, about border security,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said today.
The Senate finished today a second week of debate on the immigration legislation that seeks to balance Democrats’ goal of a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. with Republicans’ insistence on stricter border security. Senate Democratic leaders want to pass a bill by the end of next week.
The last major revision of U.S. immigration law occurred in 1986.
The compromise amendment would require the Department of Homeland Security to certify that the added border-security resources are in place before undocumented immigrants could receive permanent legal status, said South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the bill’s Republican co-sponsors.
Also, all employers would have to use an e-verify system to check workers’ legal status, and all airports and seaports would have to use a visa entry and exit system.
“We believe all of this can be done in 10 years,” Graham told reporters. In that case, it wouldn’t delay the Senate bill’s plan to allow undocumented immigrants to begin receiving permanent legal status in 10 years.
The agreement to enhance the security elements helped siphon off support for a more stringent border plan offered by Texas Republican John Cornyn. The bill’s co-sponsors warned that Cornyn’s proposal, defeated yesterday, would have created insurmountable hurdles for undocumented immigrants to become U.S. citizens and would have cost them votes for the measure.
The compromise reached yesterday “solved the riddle of how we deal with border security,” said New York Senator Charles Schumer, a Democratic co-sponsor of the bill. “I think it’s a breakthrough, and I’m optimistic it can help us get a large number of votes on both sides of the aisle.”
The plan was praised by Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, a Republican co-sponsor of the bill who had said he wouldn’t support the measure that emerged last month from the Senate Judiciary Committee without more stringent border control.
“What this amendment reflects is what we know will work,” Rubio said on the Senate floor yesterday. “We know that adding border patrol agents, doubling the size of the border force, will work.”
Arizona Senator John McCain, also a Republican co-sponsor, said the provision “addresses the concerns of many Republicans.” He said a “significant” number of Republicans, including all four in the bipartisan negotiating group, agreed to support the plan.
Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said the proposal “brings on at least 15 Republicans, and I think momentum is building.”
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah indicated his support for the overall bill today after the border-security amendment was beefed up to include versions of his proposals to prohibit non-citizens who gain legal status from obtaining welfare benefits and to specify that unauthorized employment can’t count toward eligibility for Social Security benefits.
“I’m pleased these two common-sense amendments I put forward limiting public benefits to newly legalized immigrants are a part of this package,” he said in a statement today.
He also said of the overall measure: “No legislation is perfect and I would have written it differently. Having said that, the reality is that there are 11 million people living with de facto amnesty today - avoiding taxes and obligations that American citizens have. Securing the border while making these immigrants meet the same obligations that Americans have to live up to just makes sense. Our immigration system is broken and not doing anything isn’t a solution.”
Hatch said he will push for a separate vote on his proposal requiring immigrants to pay back taxes to qualify for temporary legal status.
Frank Sharry, founder and director of America’s Voice, a Washington-based group that supports citizenship for undocumented immigrants in the U.S., said the added border resources probably will secure the bill’s Senate passage. Still, he said, it commits too much money to border security.
“It’s terrible public policy, and it’s a legislative breakthrough,” Sharry said.
While Sharry said his group is heartened that the goal of a pathway to citizenship is in reach, he called the accord on border security a “very high price to pay” to achieve passage of the legislation.
If enacted, the proposal would mark the biggest investment in border security in U.S. history, dwarfing the largest package so far that was approved in 2010. That $600 million measure was geared specifically at the U.S.-Mexico border and provided 1,500 new Border Patrol, Customs and other agents, as well as new communications equipment and unmanned aircraft.
Obama signed the law in August 2010, with the measure seen by Democrats as a way to dislodge the broader debate on revising immigration laws. Republicans won control of the House in that year’s November election, and the issue was stuck in a partisan stalemate until this year.
The compromise announced yesterday drew criticism from Republican Senators Charles Grassley of Iowa, Jeff Sessions of Alabama, Ted Cruz of Texas, David Vitter of Louisiana and Mike Lee of Utah, who said it wouldn’t do enough to ensure the border is secure.
Vitter told reporters that the agreement was designed “to pass the bill, not to fix the bill.”
“This is an attempt to pull out of the fire a bill that has been weakening,” Sessions said.
The Senate defeated, 54-43, Cornyn’s plan to require the government to show it was apprehending 90 percent of the people illegally crossing the border from Mexico before undocumented immigrants could gain permanent legal residency.
As initially proposed, the Senate immigration bill, S. 744, would allow undocumented immigrants to gain permanent residency, known as a green card, when the government has a “substantially operational” plan for achieving a 90 percent apprehension rate at the border.
Senator Mark Kirk, an Illinois Republican, praised the border-security agreement and said he’s prepared to vote for the bill if the proposal is adopted. He was one of 15 senators, all Republicans, who voted on June 11 against taking up the measure that came out of the Judiciary panel.
“This bipartisan compromise will restore the people’s trust in our ability to control the border and bring 525,000 people in Illinois out of the shadows,” Kirk said in a statement.
Nevada Republican Senator Dean Heller told reporters he also plans to support the bill if the agreement is accepted.
The Congressional Budget Office estimated on June 18 that the Senate bill would reduce the federal budget deficit by about $175 billion over a decade and by $700 billion during the second 10 years after implementation. It said increased tax revenue from new U.S. residents would outpace growth in the demand for government services.
The House has yet to take up legislation revising U.S. immigration law. A bipartisan group of House lawmakers may announce a comprehensive plan as soon as next week.
The House Judiciary Committee, led by Virginia Republican Bob Goodlatte, is considering individual pieces of legislation involving aspects of immigration policy.
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, has said he won’t bring an immigration proposal to a vote unless a majority of the chamber’s 234 most Republicans support it.
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